All About Afternoon Tea Virtual Class
The British are known for drinking tea. While the team might come from China or India, and there are many countries that are known for tea rituals like Japan, the British are famous for drinking it for most of the day. When I first moved to London, I did not drink tea. Today, I am a proper London tour guide who has tea daily, much to the chagrin of my dental hygienist. Some days, I properly indulge with several cups.
My newest online class for kids (via Outschool) is More London History: All About Afternoon Tea. I’m thrilled to bring the history and flavours of this meal to my homeschool viewers. In the class, I have a combination of history of tea, elements of a proper afternoon tea, and the difference between high tea and afternoon tea. Also, I have provided a fun prep sheet with recipe for scones so that the kids can join me! It should be fun.
My first job in London was working with a sports marketing company. It was a small team who loved their tea. While the environment became really toxic for me in the end, the one take away was that I learned how important tea was to the work environment. Co-workers were constantly drinking it, constantly making it, constantly finding any excuse for tea. One guy would ask, “How do you spell..” and it would be a word ending in T. A girl would reply with the proper spelling, and when she said the last letter “T”…. he would reply, “Oh, thanks, I’d love one!” She would then go make teas. This happened often.
My American work ethic was challenged by their need to constantly stop what they are doing to go make tea. “How does anyone get anything done in this office?” I pondered. Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said that they would have won the war quicker if the British hadn’t always stopped for tea. I was happy to have my morning coffee at home and then spend the rest of the day sipping on a bottle of water at my desk. I didn’t move, I worked. That’s the American way! That also did not fly in this office. I remember loathing my colleagues because if you counted up all the tea and cigarette breaks they took, plus the lunch at the pub, you noticed their working hours were about three hours less than what I was putting in. Yet, they seemed to be in favour of the bosses. Typical!
Since I had not yet succumbed to the spell of this drink, I always said “No” when asked if I wanted one. I didn’t drink tea all day. This became a problem for me in this office, because in addition to not drinking it, I was not making it. They started to call me out on this. I told my husband, who had worked in London longer than me. “You have to make tea,” he said. I tried to rationalise with him that since I didn’t drink tea, there was no point in forcing me to make tea. “You have to, it’s the culture,” he said. He was right.
So, I offered to make tea for the team. As people fired off their orders of milk, sugar and the appropriate amounts for their taste, I was transported back to my waitress days. It was humiliating. Here I stood with a master’s degree in International Marketing asking how many sugars this hateful witch of an office mate wanted in her tea! (She was horrible, toxic… but office bullying wasn’t a thing back then so I just had to take it.) When I returned with the six cups of tea in hand (the waitress training came in handy), they looked at me like I was from Mars. Apparently, you are supposed to remove the tea bag before presenting it to their royal highnesses. I didn’t know that. BECAUSE I DIDN’T DRINK TEA!
Fast forward a few years and I was now an Account Director at another marketing agency. I had a team of 13 hip and trendy kids working for me and they were all about drinking tea. By now, I had learned to drink at least one cup in the office by mid morning. This gave me the opportunity to offer my tea making service on occasion. Not everyday, I was the boss now. At this time, there was a new website that could track the office tea making. Using gamification, the website allowed each office to list names, the way they like their tea, and then who made the tea and who drank the tea. A leaderboard widget could sit on your desktop and everyone could track. If Ben hadn’t made tea in a while, everyone knew it and it was his turn.
Over time, much like tea dripping onto the sand, I started to cave. I became fond of tea. This was partly due to my indulgence in afternoon tea. My husband and I loved going to a hotel or a cafe and ordering the towering plates of sandwiches and desserts that are so popular with London tourists. It wasn’t something that Brits did regularly, and somehow I was considered uncool for doing it so often. No matter… I was exploring the tea menu with more confidence and learning what I liked. I came to the conclusion that “office tea” as I started calling it, was total trash. Offices had large, economy-sized boxes of tea bags (usually PG Tips) that tasted bitter and dry. I had discovered Earl Grey, Darjeeling and Lapsong Souchong. My palate had grown complex and sensitive to the flavour of tea, and the options at the office were no longer satisfactory.
There is another culprit to my disdain for office tea. The kettle. It was always disgusting. London water from the River Thames is riddled with limescale and office workers never clean their kettle. I’m not surprised that kettles haven’t killed more Londoners. I guess you can’t die from limescale, but looking at these kettles you might think twice. Next time you are in a London hotel, look at the kettle before you use it. All that yellowish stuff is limescale.
For a short time, I worked in a fine dining restaurant where the hot water was taken from the coffee machine. Nothing ruins a cup of tea like the lingering taste of stale coffee. It was at this point I questioned the entire tea-drinking habit. Do these people have no respect for themselves? Why can’t they boil a proper pot of water and allow the tea leaves to dance among the heated liquid? Wait…. what? Was I a tea drinker now? Or a tea connoisseur?
Today, I have a proper tea shelf in my kitchen cabinets like a proper Londoner. We have a variety of flavours and styles. I know the difference between black tea, green tea, white tea and specialty tea. I know when to add milk and when to hold off, and I can not only debate the “milk first or second” concept, but I’ll also give you an annotated and scientific explanation of why. I know what sugar can do to the complexity of a tea, and why brown or raw is better than white. If you break any tea etiquette, I’ll be the first one to correct you. Don’t mess with me — I know my tea.
I know that my current London-American self would scream bloody murder at the waitress-American former me who would offer a tepid warm cup of water with a slice of lemon to someone who asked for tea at a restaurant. The insult of not providing a proper cup of tea to a British person is something that wars might have been fought over, or at any rate, lingered on longer than they should have. Tea is an institution, much like the monarchy or the aristocracy. It has traditions, procedures and protocol.
After years of tea education and exploration, now I offer tours on afternoon tea, the art of making a proper cup of tea, and how/where to buy the best tea. I can engage with you on a conversation about Earl Grey, the licence for making his version, the imitations to avoid, the variations to try and the many tea stores in London to buy and try Earl Grey for yourself, just like the Queen. I can explain the legend of milk oolong and fascinate you with how they recreated the tea that was left over from the Boston Tea Party. I can make chai from scratch and babble on about the subtle differences that spices and herbs you might try to transform this wonderful concoction.
No longer am I an American who doesn’t understand or drink tea. My knowledge on the history of tea, its importance over time, how it has influenced the nation, and how it helped people survive wars might even be a little more vast that a typical Brit. When you take time to dive in and study the subject of tea as I have, you often find that you are more versed in it than the person who told you that your tea-making skills were as useless as you are. Those early days in that self-destructive office became the foundation for my mastery of a subject that is deliciously rewarding.
Tea can solve any problem. Tea is a metaphor for your struggles. Tea is life, the rest is just details.