In the words of English writer Henry James, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” No matter the weather or occasion, there is no problem, however big or small, that a cup of tea cannot solve. A staple of the British Isles since the start of the 17th Century, tea was first introduced as an export by the East India Company and was exclusively for the rich and privileged. But it wasn’t long before teahouses were to become a popular fixture with all strata’s of society, with drinking tea still synonymous worldwide as being a quintessentially English custom. Here is a brief roundup of how we enjoy tea across the UK and some of the best regional teas to sample.
London and the South East
In 1706, Thomas Twinings (of the namesake teabags!) opened his first teashop for ladies in the Strand, London. Twinings himself was a Gloucestershire lad and soon teahouses were springing up all across the country. However, it wasn’t until the 19th Century that the idea of taking afternoon tea became popularized. We have Anna, the Seventh Duchess of Bedford, to thank for that. Anna liked to enjoy a late dinner, leaving a space in the afternoon which simply had to be filled by some sort of snack and a beverage and it wasn’t long before drinking tea (with some fancy cakes and nibbles) became de rigeur for anyone who was anyone in London society. Teas originating from India and China were ideal, thanks to their fragrant, delicate flavors. Nowadays, London is a hub of teashops, with everything from high street coffee houses to the best five stars hotel offering a brew.
Oolong tea is a Chinese tea from the Fujian region and comes in many flavors, from light and refreshing to dense and woody. Also known as Wu-Long tea, which roughly translates in Chinese as Black Dragon tea, this popular tea was once the beverage of choice for the Ming Dynasty and continues to be drunk around the UK both with and without milk. The complex fermentation process involves rolling the tea leaves, which gives loose leaf oolong its distinctive, curly appearance. Its flavors are delicate and complex, making it the perfect choice when it comes to choosing an afternoon tea. Fortum and Mason in London do an unrivalled afternoon tea, with Oolong tea amongst the many teas on offer. If you want to try your traditional tea with something a little different, Formosan Bubble Tea in Oxford combines the rich subtle taste of these green and black teas with the Taiwanese favorite of adding chewy tapioca pearls. Perfect for those looking for a drink and a snack as they explore the dreaming spires of one of the UK’s most historical cities.
Famed for its many health benefits, camomile tea was first used by the Ancient Egyptians to stave off the signs of a cold and was later adopted by the Romans as their tea of choice if you were feeling under the weather. Native to Europe as well as Asia, camomile was being enjoyed in the UK long before the arrival of tea merchants and modern day drinkers can find a decent cup of this multitasking herbal tea almost anywhere on the high street. Best for drinking to de-stress and especially to help with sleep, this type of tea is most beneficial really when drunk at home. Why not try some loose leaf camomile tea from Tregothnan, where it is hand-picked on their estate in Truro, Cornwall.
If deciding to ask for tea up North, you shouldn’t be surprised to be presented with your evening meal instead! ‘Char’ was the most usual term used for a cuppa, derived from the Hindi word for tea – ‘Chai’. Northerners have the reputation for liking their tea with plenty of milk and two sugars thank you very much, but when it comes to the North, this stereotype of only enjoying a milky mug of tea is not always necessarily the case. Tealicious, based in Durham, has a wide selection of loose leaf teas, all served in delicate bone china cups from their charming, vintage style tearoom http://www.tealicioustearoom.co.uk/. The Remember Me Tea Rooms also offer a taste of a bygone era, serving afternoon teas ranging from traditional favorites to downright bonkers brews such as popcorn flavor, all hosted from their high street location in Stockton-Upon-Tees.
If fruit tea is what really gets your taste buds flowing, there are now so many different varieties to choose from, you could have a different cup every day of the week. Turkish apple tea is perennially popular and evokes all the distinctive, sweet and spicy flavors of a Turkish bazaar, whilst all kinds of mint tea and berry flavors also rate highly when it comes to British tea drinkers. Other popular fruity tea infusions amongst us Brits include the addition of a fruity taste to take the edge off the dense, sometimes bitter green teas. Ginger, lemon and cherry are all popular when it comes to partners for green tea, along with exotic tastes such as coconut and pineapple also being a winner.
So whether you are looking to start your day with a traditional cup or are looking forward to putting your feet up at the end of it with a cuppa, there is nothing we Brits love more than a brew and nothing that unites us more than getting the kettle on and settling down to enjoy a mug of tea together.