Teas of yesteryear

Introduce Tea Kettle

FRIENDS, LET ME tell you that, when it comes to tea, the class system in England is as alive and well as it was in the days of Edward VII, eighty years ago. If you are truly upper class, you pour your tea into your cup before adding milk. (The Brits like their tea with milk; cream, lemon, and even sugar have never been popular in England.) The lower classes, on the other hand, put their milk and sugar, if any, into their cups first, and add the tea next. (For the life of me, I have never figured out how you can tell how much milk to add to your tea if you don’t see the color of the tea first.)

Teashops no longer exist in London, to the sorrow of those in search of non-alcoholic refreshments. Servants too have vanished from the English scene, and with them a very civilized tradition-early-morning tea. In the days before cradle-to-grave socialism and its attendant egalitarianism, one was awakened by a housemaid tiptoeing into one’s bedroom and depositing on the bedside table a small tray with a small teapot, a little milk, a cup, and a plate with a slice of bread and butter or two crackers. The housemaid would also pull back the curtains and in cold weather lay a fire in the fireplace; if the weather was not nice, the maid would even light the fire for you. The joy of such awakenings! By and by one gathered enough strength to face an enormous breakfast downstairs a couple of hours later. However, I am happy to report that today, in houses where the host gets up early, he will himself bring a cup of tea to your bedside, though he won’t draw the curtains or lay a fire.

In Great Britain, tea is consumed day and night. It can be a “cuppa,” proffered with a sprightly, “Drink this, luv” or, “I’ll make you a nice cup of tea, the tea kettle is on the boil.” In any case, a cup of tea, usually very strong and black, heals all wounds. It is the great restorative.

Tea is also a meal-afternoon tea, for example, also known as drawingroom tea, since the dining-room table was laid for tea only when there were visiting children around. Afternoon tea bridged the horrid, foodless hours between lunch at one and dinner at eight; until upper-class women started working, it was at afternoon tea that they entertained each other. The hostess would serve from a (preferably) silver tray, which held, besides the teapot, a slop basin (to hold the dregs of one’s cup when a new cup had been asked for), a kettle on a stand with a flame underneath to keep the water boiling, a milk jug, and a sugar basin, as well as stacked cups, saucers, and teaspoons. In really nice houses, the tea equipage was made of solid silver and the cups were very thin Spode china. An old-fashioned hostess might give you a choice of black or green tea. A tea caddy held the different teas in separate compartments.

The air was filled with murmured little questions (“You do take two lumps [of sugar] don’t you?” Or “Would you like a little more milk?”). Sandwiches of extremely thin white and brown bread, cut into crustless fingers, buttered, and filled with cucumber, meatpaste, potted shrimps, or anchovies, were handed around by the men or the youngest guests. Buttered white and brown toast, in a silver toast holder (my toast holder now holds my writing paper), served with Tiptree’s Wild Strawberry Jam, had to be eaten, along with the sandwiches, before the cake. The cakes came on a tiered cake stand and they invariably included a seed cake (hated by every child), a fruit cake, a sponge cake, and, if the household was lavish, a flat chocolate cake known as a “gateau” (pronounced “gatter”). Formal teas are, alas, no longer the norm…eheu! fugaces, is all I can say.

Nursery teas were spartan, with Nanny allowing each child plain bread and butter, followed, when the occasion demanded it, by a sweet bun or a biscuit. School teas, as I remember them, were equally spartan. We could have all the bread and butter, or all the bread and jam, we wanted. But bread and butter and jam together were verboten-that would have been greedy, which one must never be. Office teas, invariably served by a secretary or an office boy at 4 p.m., consisted of tea and biscuits. The same fare was served to you, in your seat, at theater intervals, a practice unique to England, so far as I know.

High tea, at 6 p.m., served at a properly laid table, was not an upperclass custom at all, and it should have been known as supper. High tea included cold meat, potted fish, a salad of plain lettuce cut into wedges, perhaps a plate of sliced tomatoes, and a nice bit of yellow cheese, all washed down by scalding black tea, followed by cake and biscuits. I think high tea perfectly horrible: the foods are inappropriate for the hour. The only time I could eat a high tea was after walking all day on the Yorkshire moors and then turning in at a farm house with a big sign in the window saying TEA.


In my youth, tea at the London Ritz’s Palm Court was the great treat. It was a formal affair, and if you were not suitably dressed, you would be turned away. As I remember, the sandwiches were the thinnest ever and cut into crustless diamonds and triangles. Diamond-shaped sandwiches were filled with potted meat, triangular ones with jam. Here, too, you ate your sandwiches before going on to creamy cakes and petits fours glazed with pink or white fondant. You had your choice of tea: black Assam, Oolong, Earl Grey, etc., etc., or green China tea, which does not resemble in the least what one gets in American Chinese restaurants.

The infamous tea bag has come to England, but, I am happy to say, it finds its way not into a cup, as it would here, but into a teapot, where it is covered with barely boiling water. “Ou sont les neiges d’antan?”-or, in this case, where are the tea leaves of yesteryear? Sic transit gloria.