I recently had a conversation with my daughter-in-law, who is not at present able to drink much alcohol, about what alternatives there were for people who dislike soft drinks because they are usually too sweet. By chance, the topic was picked up again when my friend Priscilla visited yesterday and we were reminiscing about the (few and far between) forays into drinking alcohol that we ventured into when students. Yes, I was a student at the height of the student power era and, no, we didn’t all spend our time getting drunk and bed-hopping, as I explained to my son in his adolescent years (somewhat to his disappointment).
The two conversations (and this delightful post by Jacy Brean which recently caught the imagination of lots of blog readers, including me) have started me thinking about beverages generally. When I was a child, tea was the drink of choice for virtually every occasion. We drank tea at every meal, tea when my grandmothers and other relatives visited, tea when the milkman and postman called in on cold days and tea when we went to the seaside – the cafés close to the beach were all fitted with serving hatches in one wall where parents could send their children (i.e., my brother and me!) to buy a pot of tea and carry it on a tray, together with cups, saucers, milk jug and sugar basin, all in in thick white or blue-and-white pottery, down to the sands; the cafés relied on customers to return the crockery when they’d finished with it and clearly almost everyone obliged, as I don’t recall ever being asked for a deposit. Tea was also served with seaside fish and chips, together with thick hunks of white bread and butter, a meal polished off with a generous helping of ice-cream. We were quite innocent of any knowledge of ‘balanced diets’, cholesterol, the cause of coronary heart disease or obesity. We were, in any case, as skinny as rakes, despite, as a family, consuming 4 lbs of white sugar each week, most of it stirred into tea. I gave up adding sugar to drinks only when I reached the sixth form.
The tea we drank at home during my primary school years was not branded. It came from Hannam & Blackbourn, the grocer’s shop in Spalding (long since closed following the advent of the supermarkets). It was weighed out in quarters from a wooden tea chest and wrapped in dark blue ‘sugar paper’. (Sugar, dried fruit, rice and dried pulses were bought and wrapped in the same way.) By the time we had a television, my mother was buying the brands of tea that still flourish today, mainly PG Tips and Typhoo (their branding has changed over the years, but only subtly). We enjoyed watching the PG Tips chimps’ tea parties in the adverts, although I do remember feeling uneasy even then about seeing primates dressed in human clothes. Typhoo adverts were annoying: ‘You-hoo, Typhoo!” I liked the chimps better.
Alternatives to tea were limited. My parents didn’t drink coffee until I was in my teens, though they sometimes rounded off a meal with a cup of “Camp”(sic) Coffee, a chicory-based liquid substitute for coffee which fascinated me because of the picture on the bottle of a hirsute Sikh servant in full national dress serving an equally hairy and rugged Scots soldier wearing a kilt. I assume that the product was invented for consumption by the armed forces in the colonies. I didn’t then understand that the word ‘camp’ had various meanings; looking back, I wonder if that picture was a joke, or at least intended as a double entendre. Nescafé arrived towards the end of my childhood and was reserved for such festivities as whist drives and church fetes. The good ladies who provided refreshments on these occasions considered that the proper way to serve it was by adding a mixture of hot milk diluted with hot water to a sparing teaspoonful of the powder. The result was drinkable, if nothing like coffee. My grandmother would give me a cup of Nescafé if I visited her on a Saturday morning. She didn’t drink it herself, so bought a tiny tin – about the size of the very smallest tin of beans obtainable – and reserved it for my use. I didn’t graduate from powdered coffee to the real thing until I was married, and then only via the percolator, popularised in the 1970s for what I can only describe as the emasculation of the coffee bean. Coffee makers followed some time later, and it is to this period I date my addiction to good coffee.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Other childhood drinks, aside from water from the tap (none of my parents’ generation would have dreamt of paying for water) included the weekly treat of being able to choose a bottle of pop from the pop man (the Corona lorry did the rounds of the local streets: I always chose Dandelion and Burdock and, I recall, my brother liked Cideapple), Ovaltine on cold winters’ nights, milk (which I hated – I never drank my free third pint at school – Margaret Thatcher would have been welcome any time to snatch it from me) and Lucozade, which was strictly reserved for aiding recovery from colds, ‘flu and bronchitis. Occasionally, if we stopped at a pub on the way home from the coast, we were allowed a very weak shandy. This was another hatch-in-the-wall job, my father returning to the car with one beer, three shandies and four packets of crisps, but I remember that we were mainly excited because the break in the journey meant we would overshoot bedtime by at least half an hour.
My father came from a family of Methodists and, though he did not practise the religion himself, he’d grown up in a household where alcohol was banned. It was therefore only when I was a teenager that he began to buy alcohol to drink at home, and then only at Christmas. Each year he would invest in a bottle of sherry, a bottle of whisky and perhaps two bottles of wine. We were allowed a glass of the latter with our Christmas lunch. It was not unusual for some of a year’s quota of whisky and sherry to come out the following Christmas, not having been consumed in the meantime.
Priscilla’s family was a little more convivial, but still not exactly what you would call topers. Her mother introduced me to Asti Spumante. As students (she reminded me yesterday), Priscilla and I experimented by buying a bottle of Barsac, which we managed to make last three or four days. I can’t remember what we drank most of the time, but I suspect it was once again largely tea and tap-water.
So, to revisit the conversation with my daughter-in-law, what do you drink with a meal when you want to cut down on alcohol or it’s entirely off-limits? Given my background, finding alternatives shouldn’t be a problem. I must confess, though, water and tea don’t seem nearly as alluring as an accompaniment to an evening meal as my parents seemed to find it (I still enjoy tea in the afternoon, as you’ll know from here) and, over the years, I’ve become conditioned to appreciate a carefully-cooked dinner much more if it is accompanied by a glass of good wine. (My Barsac days are over: I like a good Pinot Grigio, Bourgogne or Chablis now.) One answer which I intend to explore is to follow the Chinese example and experiment with more unusual kinds of tea. I have no excuse for putting this off, as I already have quite a collection, either supplied by my son on his travels or collected myself on mine, like the ones I brought back from China.
So here’s a toast to tea! And to being in my (tea-) cups often during the course of this winter, if I can find the right ones! I may not carry you or members of my family along with me.