In my cups…

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.

For all the tea in China, I’d need several fortunes…

Entrance to Yu Garden, Shanghai

Entrance to Yu Garden, Shanghai

This is my first full day at home after my visit to China, and I’ve just enjoyed a nice cup of tea. Tea is one of our national clichés – the universal British remedy for everything, from broken hearts to bereavement, and also the beverage that most Brits look forward to the most when returning home from foreign adventures. However, I can hardly claim to have been tea-deprived during my five-day sojourn in Shanghai or the two days I spent in Beijing. Tea is what you drink with every meal in China, and there are hundreds of different kinds. I managed to sample a few of them, sometimes in very special surroundings. It is served with some ceremony in restaurants: waiters hover with teapots and fill your cup again as soon as you’ve drained it. As with wine, special kinds of tea are recommended for some types of food: for example, a rich, smoky tea accompanied the duck that I ate in the original Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing (more of this in a separate post). Tea is also used in very traditional restaurants to cleanse crockery and cutlery at the table.
I had only two half-days to myself, as mine was a business trip, not a holiday, but, aided by some kind Asian colleagues, I was able to make the most of them. On the Sunday after I arrived in Shanghai, I took a taxi to the Yu Garden,
Temple courtyard in Yu Garden, Shanghai

Temple courtyard in Yu Garden, Shanghai

a mesmerising complex of temples, waterways and ancient shops, and, after an hour or two of sightseeing, found myself standing outside the fabled Huxinting Tea House, the oldest tea house in Shanghai (the building is about 230 years old, becoming a tea house in 1855).
Huxinting Tea House, Yu Garden

Huxinting Tea House, Yu Garden

Naturally, I went in and was delighted to find that I’d chanced upon a mid-afternoon lull in business, so it wasn’t too crowded.
Inside, the tea house is opulent but not flamboyant. The waitresses are dressed in a uniform based on one of the many forms of Chinese national dress and they are attentive but unobtrusive. There are scores of types of tea to choose from, some of them extremely expensive. I chose jasmine, which came in a glass jug and was accompanied by two aromatic sweetmeats.
Jasmine tea for one, please...

Jasmine tea for one, please…

It was quite delicious: fragrant and refreshing, exotic without being strange. It wasn’t cheap, either: it cost the same as a couple of lattes from Starbucks would have cost in the UK, which by Chinese standards is very expensive indeed. But it was well worth the price: I understand why Chinese people think that the tea house is so special and come here for a treat. It’s not only the ambience inside the building itself that gives so much pleasure; it is also being able to look out across the water of the lake in which it stands on stilts to the picturesque buildings beyond. The paths and walkways are always teeming with people and the tea house itself offers a haven of tranquillity from which to observe them, as well as a feeling of privilege. The elderly couple sitting next to me were obviously savouring every moment, whilst also engaging in a very animated conversation.
Or tea for two...

Or tea for two…

Each type of tea is served in a different type of vessel and theirs was in terracotta pots with lids, which they had refilled more than once. I’d have loved to have been able to ask them what their choice had been.
Since I came home, I’ve read about the Huxinting Tea House online and discovered that the Queen has visited it. I don’t suppose that she had to worry about the cost of her tea, but I do wonder if, having imbibed its product, Her Maj was constrained to use the establishment’s facilities. If so, I’d like to know what she made of the shaft-style convenience,
For the convenience of the tea house customer...

For the convenience of the tea house customer…

which was the first, but by no means the last, of this type of porcelain that I encountered in China. (I should add that the one in the Huxinting Tea House was spotless.)
I wanted to bring some tea home with me, but was advised against buying it from one of the specialist purveyors of tea or at the airport as being prohibitively expensive in either. On my last day in Beijing, I therefore walked to a local supermarket and bought two types of tea there, one of them a chrysanthemum tea that I’d first seen earlier in the week when it was ordered by a librarian during a conference that took place at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. On that occasion, it was served in a tall glass mug with a mash of dried chrysanthemum flowers floating on the surface of the hot water. More prosaically, I think that my own purchase will consist of more conventional-looking tea leaves, albeit made out of chrysanthemums. Chrysanthemum tea sounds unpleasant – I was sceptical until I tried it, thinking that it might taste as the half-dead ‘chrysanths’ which I remember adorning the graves in Spalding Cemetery used to smell, but in fact it is delicate to the taste-buds and very refreshing.
Going to the supermarket offered me one of only a few rare opportunities to encounter ordinary Chinese people as they went about their business. I was grateful for this experience. Once again, I was also astounded by how expensive the tea was and how greatly prized. In the supermarket where I bought mine, it was kept upstairs with the alcohol and closely guarded by a security man. It cost about three times as much as a packet of ‘builder’s tea’ in England. I wonder what Chinese builders drink? I’d like to think that their day is fuelled by an infusion of chrysanthemums!
China tea at home...

China tea at home…

All text and photographs on this website © Christina James

Knitted up? Some criminal stereotyping in all this?

Time for tea

I read in yesterday’s paper that Julia Gillard, the outgoing Australian PM, thinks that knitting can save the world, because of its therapeutic qualities, and that a (male) spin doctor thought it was a good idea for her to appear in domestic knitting bliss on the cover of The Australian Women’s Weekly.  If, by this means, she intended her knitophile confession to demonstrate her hominess and thus save her career, she failed spectacularly, but I hope that she is consoled by knowing that now she will have much more time to knit and that she may thus reap all of knitting’s health-giving benefits.

As an acknowledged world-saver, knitting is one of the more unlikely contenders.  I’d say that, by some distance, the thing most commonly claimed to be a universal restorative and peacemaker is tea.  I offer the following literary samples to take with tea:

  • Typhoo [after Joseph Conrad]
  • Under the Green Tea Tree [after Thomas Hardy]
  • Take tea or not take tea, that is the question! [after Shakespeare, Hamlet]
  • I will arise and go now, to make a cup of tea [after W.B. Yeats]
  • Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of Whittard’s mango tea [after John Milton]
  • Earl Grey’s Anatomy [after Henry Gray]
  • Darjeeling Buds of May [after H.E. Bates]
  • The Gunpowder Tea Plot [after Antonia Fraser et al]
  • The time is spent, her object will away, but from her Twinings tea there’s no releasing [after Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis]
  • Ode on a Grecian Urn [John Keats]

However, there is the Boston tea party, proving both that truth is stranger than fiction and that, in reality, although tea may sometimes be a peacemaker, it can also start wars!

Perhaps it might be better to put cake on the tea table, too, whilst we all sit knitting for our lives…  Men make cakes as well, you know… and knit.


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