My family made a big trip to the UK and Ireland in 1997. This was only my second trip to Europe, following a few weeks in Switzerland in 1996. I had high hopes for London and Dublin; I saw everything through the romantic lens of a seventeen year-old American in love with the BBC’s 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice. Climbing out of the tube at Picadilly Circus, I looked up elegant, curved Regent Street and felt like I was truly “living the dream”. London is beautiful, it is old, it is imposing, and I wanted to be a part of it. So I needed to go for high tea. It is a ritual that is purely British.
I had my first proper “high tea” experience with my parents and siblings at Fortnum and Mason one afternoon. If you are going to have any high tea experience, F&M is a glorious place to start. Bringing a parent or two to pay for the experience is an expert move. I ordered Queen Anne tea because, well, obviously. Loose-leaf tea floated in thick silver teapots. This was my first experience with both loose-leaf tea and silver teapots. There were two teapots per person (but of course!), one for extra hot water if you liked your tea weaker. White linen cloths wrapped around the handles of said teapots so your hands won’t burn as you pour. The trick is remembering to put the strainer on your teacup before pouring the tea. Forgetting the strainer is a quick way to be singled out as a person who does not know what they are doing. In life.
We became obsessed with “tea time” on that trip. Every hotel we stopped at, every chance we got, we would order a full tea. Happily my father has almost less control when it comes to high tea, so we just followed his lead.
We returned to the States with many tins of F&M Royal Blend and Queen Anne tea. My father bought all of us our own teapots and tea cozies to match. We were officially a tea household, but teatime still felt like “treat time.”
I didn’t grow up with teatime or loose-leaf tea. We had tea bags, and neither of my parents drank much tea. Our comfort hot beverage of choice was always hot cocoa. I do remember my mother showing me how to wrap the string of a tea bag around the mug handle before I poured in the hot water so that it wouldn’t slip into the cup. That was our teatime: we used mugs, never teacups, and always tea bags. Though my grandmother’s pantry is full of endless teacups and saucers, they were only brought out for special occasions. We didn’t drink tea every day. It was a treat, a gateway drug into coffee; it was an excuse to have milk and sugar. (I’ve even been known to sneak half and half into my tea. The decadence!)
When I moved to Ireland in 2001, I thought it was so sweet that everyone made tea all the time. People used mugs and you were offered tea whenever you walked into a building. The tea bags don’t have pesky strings to worry about, and the tea is stronger and darker. Everyone has an electric kettle. That makes making tea much quicker than how we did it at home: boiling up a kettle on the stove. It makes no sense, but I was always pleased and surprised to see boys/young men/my friends making and drinking tea. It seemed so quaint! But making a cup of tea for someone is an inexpensive yet exceedingly kind thing to do for a person.
Tea is used at every moment here in Ireland. “I’ll pop by later for a cup of tea!” “It’s eleven o’clock!” Cup of tea. “It’s four o’clock!” Cup of tea. “I’ve lost my job.” Have a cup of tea. “My mother’s died.” Have a cup of tea. With lots of milk and two sugars.
Since I moved to Ireland permanently I have absolutely folded tea drinking into my daily life. I have both loose-leaf and teabags in my cupboard. When people think of Irish tea, they almost always think “Barrys!” It is the classic Irish ex-pat tea. I’ve heard, more than once, that it’s not only the tea that is better here, but it’s the water that makes it perfect. It’s no wonder everything thinks American’s can’t make a decent cup of tea. How do we compete with that? Well, we can’t.
I have had some wonderful high tea’s in Dublin. The Merrion Hotel is tops, but the Shelbourne also does a really wonderful tea. Best tea shop in my ‘hood is Wall and Keogh, who seem to supply most cafés in town now. I always appreciate a café that will make you a proper pot of tea for the same price as a tea bag cup of tea. I always put milk in my black tea. I will occasionally go for a tiny smidge of sugar if I need the kick, but I never do it if there are sugar cubes. I never want a full cube and then you are stuck with a gooey lump on your spoon which is messy and fussy and a cup of tea should not be that.
I have some F&M Queen Anne tea in my cupboard at the moment. Oddly, all the F&M tea bags have strings. I wonder if that is to keep the Americans happy? Why do American’s need strings on their tea bags? What, may I ask, is the point of that?