In the UK, a cuppa−that is, a cup of tea−fixes everything. It’s the universal panacea. You have a cold and a stuffy nose? Have a cuppa. You’re sad that your favorite show was cancelled? Have a cuppa. You’re getting divorced? Have a cuppa. For all of life’s trials both big and small, the British drown their sorrows and find solace and hope in a cup of tea.
In this challenging and scary time, I’d love to be able to say, “Come over and have a cuppa. It’ll soothe your mind and wash away your cares.” Since that’s not possible in this period of self-isolation and staying home, I invite you to share in some of my favorite tea memories. Make yourself a cuppa and enjoy . . .
The first time I visited the UK, I stayed with a friend who was working and living in North London. On the Monday when she went off to work, I headed down the road to have breakfast in a small shop. I was excited to partake in that quintessential British custom of a full English breakfast with a pot of tea. I watched fascinated as the waitress brought the tea items−steaming pot of a rich black brew, jug of whole milk, and sugar bowl. She patiently explained the proper way to serve England’s magic drink. She filled half of the cup with milk, then she poured the strong tea up to the brim. She pushed the sugar bowl toward me and told me to add two spoons full.
Prior to that morning I had never drunk tea with milk or sugar but, when I travel, I always do what the locals do. Otherwise, what’s the point of traveling? While I waited for my English breakfast, I sipped my tea. Revelation! It was delicious. Sweet and wonderful. I was forever hooked. From then on, whenever it’s a rainy day, I make a pot of English tea in the afternoon while I’m writing−and I make it exactly as that lovely woman taught me.
Drinking tea in the United Kingdom isn’t limited to breakfast, of course. There are cream teas and the grande dame of them all−afternoon tea.
I was thrilled to taste my first cream tea in Stow-on-the-Wold, a small village in the Cotswolds. My friend and I sat in a tiny tea shop and mmmed our way through delicious scones covered in strawberry jam and clotted cream (whipped heavy cream only slightly sweet). I’m sure the expression to die for was invented for cream teas.
Afternoon tea is something else! It was invented at Brown’s Hotel in London. Established in 1837, Brown’s is London’s oldest hotel. Not long after, they began serving afternoon tea to society’s elite. Agatha Christie (my favorite author) frequented Brown’s and often enjoyed afternoon tea. The hotel in her Miss Marple mystery At Bertram’s Hotel is modeled on Brown’s.
I’ve always wanted to have afternoon tea at Brown’s−it was in the top 5 on my bucket list. A few years ago, I had the chance to do it. My friend Belinda and I went to London for a couple of weeks to celebrate our 65th birthdays. I made the reservations. We packed a special outfit−according to their online information women are expected to wear dresses or skirts. We ate very little that day in anticipation.
Nothing could have prepared me for this glorious event. The Drawing Room at Brown’s embraces its guests in luxury. Thick carpeting and rich wood paneling quiet the room. Conversations are kept low. Scattered throughout the room are camelback sofas upholstered in jewel tone velvets. A crackling fire in the hearth kept out the November chill on our visit.
Our feast included: a choice of 17 teas, finger sandwiches, an assortment of delicate pastries, fruit and plain scones with clotted cream and strawberry preserve, and a choice of freshly baked cakes from the trolley. The choice of sandwiches was: ham, cheese, and pickle relish; smoked salmon with a light mayonnaise; egg salad; corned beef and gherkin on a poppy seed bagel. We could have as much as we wanted. Our waiter brought more of our favorite sandwiches and pastries without our having to ask. The selection of pastries included: pineapple tart, red velvet cake, banana caramel, tiramisu, chocolate mousse, chocolate cup with yogurt and blueberries, rice pudding with coconut milk and mango topping, and red jelly.
When the waiter took our tea order, he asked if we were on vacation. We told him we were celebrating our 65th birthdays. To our great surprise and delight, he brought out champagne−compliments of the management−and wished us many happy returns. To say we were thrilled is an understatement. As Belinda and I enjoyed our sandwiches, scones, and desserts, he returned a couple of times to refill our champagne glasses. Finally, as if all of that wasn’t enough, he brought out 2 small cakes with flaming candles and wished us one more Happy Birthday. I happily crossed off Tea at Brown’s from my bucket list.
Although afternoon tea at Brown’s was certainly luxurious, I enjoyed those other firsts equally as much. And every time I return to the UK, I anticipate with great pleasure that pot of tea with an English breakfast and as many cream teas as we can fit in our visit!