As I get ready to go to London, I reflect on how prominently tea has figured into this country’s history, politics and present.
When I lived here 5 years ago, I was struck by how seriously everyone took their tea. At that time, you couldn’t find a good cup of coffee if your life depended on it but tea was/is another story. The most common tea was PG Tips – a supermarket brand that far exceeds anything you could get in the US. Most drink it with milk and some with sugar. And it is consumed at least 3-5 times a day. If you visit someone’s home, you are always offered a cup. If you have a business meeting, you always get tea. And tea in England is usually offered with a biscuit (The English word for cookie. McVites Digestives are the gold standard of tea cookies).
But the roots of tea hail back to the dawn of the British Empire. I’ve just finished reading The Empire of Tea by Alan MacFarlane and Iris MacFarlane which traces tea’s role in England from the early days. Tea started as a welcome, non-alcoholic hygienic beverage. At the time tea arrived on the scene, beer was a mainstay since straight water was not safe to drink and milk, prior to homogenization, deadly. Tea gave the English a way to drink palatable boiled water. And due to the caffeine content, it enhanced productivity substantially. It was available to all classes of Englishman so it was also a great equalizer.
As demand for tea grew, the English had to find new sources. Originally grown commercially in China only, the English government converted the Indian subcontinent to a robust tea-producer.
And today, tea remains king in England as well as nearly all countries in the world outside of the US. Each country has its own cultural relationship and history with tea. Next month, I’ll write about the United States’ uniquely conflicted relationship with this most international of drinks. Yes, it hails back to the Tea Party (of the Boston persuasion…).