In Italy it’s easy: we eat breakfast in the morning, we have lunch at about 1pm and dinner in the evening at 8pm. The young students will eat a nibble in school at mid-morning (that was so back in my days) and a snack later during the day. No matter of the age, the main meals will be three, with small snacks in between (healthy ones or not, but that’s another story).
What happens here across the Channel? Quite frequently in the last few years that I lived close to one of the indigenous people, I got asked late in the evening “What did you have for tea?“
Tea? As in the hot bowel-cleansing beverage with lemon in winter and cold with peach in the summer? Yes, that same very tea and for as much as English have some of the most arguable culinary habits, they do not dine with tea! Simply, when it comes to the English language, often the length of a word is inversely proportional to the different meaning that the same very word may have.
Apparently, Tea not only is the name of the beverage so loved by Her Majesty, here it can be also the name to call a meal. I did my researches, ending up in a muddle of different theories but for the sake of simplicity we can say that the way daily meals get called might depend on the area and the size of the meal itself. Simple, isn’t it? Well, not really if we consider that “tea”, in the old days, could be referred to as High Tea or Afternoon Tea… depending on who was drinking, when and where!
Initially only the wealthiest families could afford to buy tea, being that a fine beverage. The most accredited belief wants Anna, Duchess of Bedford, being the one who started off the tradition of the Afternoon Tea in the 19th century. At the time, the meals of the day were only two and the poor thing starved to dinner so she took the habit of having a light meal of sandwiches and tea in her room. There the Afternoon Tea was born. With time the tea tradition became a common and spread habit, although different depending on the social class: within the Upper Class the Afternoon Tea (or sometimes referred to as Low Tea – we’ll see in a bit why) became a status symbol, which consisted of a meal of tea, sandwiches, tarts, and sometimes scones with cream and jam as well. The tea-break was a proper meal eaten at mid-afternoon, followed by a lighter supper before calling it a day.
What about the rest of the society from the Upper Class down? What was tea to those people who busted a gut in the Liverpool’s mines and factories? They certainly didn’t have the time to sit down in mid-afternoon, sip some tea, nibble at some food on a tray and gossip on the London smart-set life. Instead, the working class of the North part of England started off the habit of the High Tea. Why was it high? Did the lower class want somehow to make up for the position they filled in the society? I got carried away with my curiosity and I did some research on this too: the origin of the name seems to come from the table they sat at rather than anything else! The High Tea was eaten sitting at a normal table unlike the Afternoon Tea which was eaten sitting on a couch or on a garden table, thus lower (here’s the alternative expression Low Tea). The height of the tea was determined by the chair that one would choose for the meal, which for the High Tea was eaten later in the evening, after the end of the working day in the factory or the mine and was made of potatoes, various vegetables and meat if the family could afford it. All washed down by a beverage of hot tea. Still today, especially within families traditionally belonging to the working class, the late meal of the day is referred to as Tea, in place of Dinner as we would do.
How does tea get drunk nowadays? The tradition certainly changed from what it used to be at the time of the Industrial Revolution and today a very few people can afford the luxury of sitting down everyday to have a classic Afternoon Tea or Cream Tea, which is the combination of tea and scones with cream and jam, served in all the tea rooms across the country and in the luxury hotels of the centre and that became an attractions for the many tourists who believe that in England the world as we know it still stops at 4 pm for the sake of a cup of tea. For the Brits (and for who has been living here for 5 years), a Cream Tea in a tea room is a treat to have from time to time, for a Birthday for example or when it’s cold and grey outside in Oxford and there’s a good, old friend to catch up with and many things to say.
Tea still remains a beverage to be drunk all day long here across the Channel, or to offer to an unexpected friend who calls in. A cup of tea also seems to have beneficial effects on anything wrong might be happening to you and your life. During the period I spent closely to one of the local people, I remember that a cup of tea was the solution to everything: a bad day or a muddle to sort out in the office? “Let’s have a cuppa” was the answer. And if you think that a tea is just a filter bag with leaves inside left soaking in a cup of hot water, think again and try to consider what your face looks like as soon as you take the first sip of an espresso ordered in a London’s pub.
Sipping really is an art on this side of the Channel – although an art open to everyone and that requires no high skills: all it takes is a bit of patience and the good will of slowing a hectic day down for a few moments. Put the kettle on, in the meanwhile get the cup wormed up with some hot water and put the tea bag in. Stop the kettle as soon as the water starts boiling and pour it in. Let it brew for a while (no more than 4 or 5 minutes!), take the bag out, add some milk and sugar if you like and stir. Then sit down and let us start the cathartic, relaxing, enlightening art of sipping, which works much better if shared with a good friend.