Friday, 31 January 2014

A cup that doesn't cheer: why the French and the Americans can't make tea

It’s ghastly trying to drink tea in the US or France. They bring you a sorry offering of a cup of hot water, distinctly off the boil once it’s made it to your table, with a tea bag by the side. You dunk the bag in the water and what emerges is an insipid liquid which shares with tea only its colour, and even then in a paler shade.

The cup that cheers but never inebriates
Not that it's particularly cheerful in the US or France
It’s long been a theory of mine that, in the case of the States, the problem was caused by the Boston Tea Party of 1773. In that deplorable incident, a bunch of rebels – or possibly freedom fighters, depending on your point of view – dressed as ‘Indians’ (though the real one were just as much native Americans then as now, they weren’t called that at the time) boarded a tea clipper, broke open its chests and tossed the precious leaves into the chilly waters of Boston harbour. 

That pouring of tea into cold water seems to me to have been a traumatic moment in the development of the American psyche, leading to the nation’s inability to make tea properly to this day.

However, I’ve recently come to know – and enjoy enormously – the work of Edith Wharton. Don’t know her writing? The Age of Innocence is well worth reading. I strongly recommend it.

The early pages of The House of Mirth contain a description of tea making in New York at the turn of the twentieth century that can leave one in no doubt that they knew how to do it. It would seem that the loss of that ability is much more recent than I had believed.

I’m forced to conclude that something far more profound is at work here. Might it be that later waves of immigrants, from such coffee-drinking nations as Italy, left the country with a population that really didn’t understand tea and, what’s more, probably didn’t care?

Because if that’s the answer, I can understand the attitude. It may be true that attaching so much importance to how tea’s made might just be one of our national bad habits over here. Perhaps US indifference to how the stuff should be served is just a salutary hint to us to lighten up a bit.

That would explain the French too, of course. Teaching the British how to behave is very much a French national sport. Why, François Hollande was indulging in it yesterday, telling David Cameron that it was all very well for him to decide he wanted EU laws changed to suit him, but that didn’t mean the rest of Europe was going to go along with the idea. Least of all France.

Such a lot of symbolism riding on the cup that cheers. Just like back in Boston in 1773. It’s clearly much more than a mere beverage.

Enough of such deep thoughts. They’re enough to work up quite a thirst. Time for a cuppa, I reckon.

Just got to make sure the water’s piping hot before it hits the tea.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

2 tricks. Always heat the teapot first, then pour milk in the cup.