The perfect cup of tea

It won’t come as any surprise that we Britons are particularly keen on tea or that we are keenly particular about how we drink our tea. After all, we have a history of shipping tonnes of the stuff thousands of miles across the seas of the world to preciously brew the perfect cup.

This morning I paid a visit to one of my favourite tea shops, Hettie’s in Pitlochry. I was served a steaming silver pot (the handle of which somehow didn’t scald my hand when I tried to pour it so that gets serious brownie points), with an incorporated strainer filled to the brim with large leaves and petals of the Earl Grey variety. Cup and saucer with matching jug of milk – large enough so that I wasn’t left rationing it to stretch to a third cup. And a small egg timer on a dish accompanied by instructions from the waitress that I should wait to remove the tea strainer from the pot until all the sand had poured through the timer. Not a gimmick I assure you. My patience was rewarded with a perfectly brewed pot of deliciously refreshing tea, and on my third cup I was not left feeling like I was sucking on a teabag that no amount of milk would dilute. The huge homemade cakes on the counter and offer of an afternoon tea would have been the perfect accompaniment and were tempting. But as it was still very much morning and I’d only just polished off a plate of Scottish smoked salmon and scrambled egg for brunch; I felt the three-storey chocolate fudge cake might have to wait until I’d conquered one of the nearby Munros and earned the calories. So today I enjoyed it vicariously, sipping my tea and watching as people on nearby tables loosened their belts in anticipation of a plateful of gloriously sinful gluttony.

Of course, perfect though it was, I would not presume to assert that this offering of tea is suited to everyone or to every occasion. After all, our country’s traditional brew has oft been the subject of long and unresolved arguments.

There are arguments to be had about whether it should be served in a cup or a mug. I would humbly suggest there is a time and a place for both. A solid and bucket-sized mug is appropriate when sitting down to do some work. After all, getting up and down to go and refill your cup would hamper productivity (considerably in my case, given how quickly I gulp the stuff down).

There are arguments to be had about whether powdered or cubes of sugar are appropriate. Short shrift on that: the only time a sugary cup of tea is in any way acceptable to me is when I am soaked and chilled to the bone, I have been trekking up and down hills for hours, my hands are shaking and blue with cold and the ‘isolated rain showers’ forecast that morning have had me pondering an invention involving windscreen wipers on waterproof jackets for the last five miles. The only issue I have then with a cup of hot and sweet tea, is how long to use the warmth through the polystyrene cup to warm my hands, before gulping it down and allowing the sugar and heat to resurrect my tired limbs sufficiently to make it across the finish line.

There is also an argument about whether milk should be poured into the cup before or after the tea. In this day and age, unless you are attending a Buckingham Palace Garden Party, this particular argument is pretty much redundant. It is not, as some will persist in arguing, that popping a splash of milk in first has some fundamental impact on the flavour. It doesn’t. The practice dates from when the heat of the tea without the cooling effect of the milk would have made the very fine china crack. So unless you have the antique china out, this one’s academic.

These are relatively minor arguments when you consider that a request for milk at all in any self-respecting café on the European continent will be met with a disgusted raise of the eyebrow and a muttered ‘ah, les Anglais!’; a slice of lemon being the only acceptable addition to a – gasp – glass of (very weak) tea. On this rare occasion, I will have to brazenly dismiss the culinary views of our Francophone neighbours. After all if you pay attention when travelling on the continent, their so-called tea is created with a brand of teabags (bags?!?!) which are rather difficult to find in the British Isles – a sure sign they are fit only for export and not for the discernible British (tea) pallet.

I have now reached the bottom of a bucket-sized mug of ‘builders’ tea – this one carefully selected for a stint sitting in front of the laptop at home(see argument above). The sun is heading over the hills on the other side of the valley and the storage heaters are creaking into action in the cottage. That must mean it’s time to sample a glass of chilled white wine and sit back to watch the black clouds and patches of pink sky battle over the snow-covered summit of Schehallion.

And that brings me back to our French friends. Where I dismissed out of hand their raised eyebrow over our milk-with-tea habit as uneducated, the aperitif choice of beverage is undoubtedly their domain. So the question is…bistro wine glass or coarse tumbler? Serve with olives or charcuterie? To hold the stem or the body of the glass?

Train or ferry? A lesson in European travel

There was a time when Eurostar was an easy, smooth and somewhat luxurious way to hop across – or more accurately under – the Channel.  As a family who live scattered across the European continent, we would make the train journey feel part of the whole holiday adventure by travelling en-masse for family events, carting a huge picnic on-board or upgrading to the glass of bubbly, three-course meal and comfy seats of business class.  Now though, it is more akin to a 2-3 hour journey on any cross-country train and a little scruffy at that.  At peak times like Christmas, under the chipped gloss, it heaves under the seemingly unexpected (although since it happens every year on the same day you’d think by now they’d have got it sussed) strain of expat families racing to get together.  St Pancras teams with queuing hordes loaded high with luggage and presents travelling to Brussels, Paris and further afield.  All are funnelled through electronic gates and then bottlenecked at security and left waiting for space on the x-ray conveyor belt, while standing in between electric doors that keep closing on your luggage or on your upper arms.  Last time I went through, after surviving the automatic doors, I spent half an hour watching a security official grunt and waft orders at me to unzip bags and pouches, then unceremoniously dump the contents of my case onto the counter and walk away.  It gave me just enough time to re-pack, push through UK border control, then French border checks and get to the escalator for the platform in time to be told off for almost missing my train (clearly I should have arrived more than the recommended 2-hours before my train’s departure).

So when my husband and brother suggested we go across ‘retro-style’ at Christmas – on the ferry – I thought why not.  Needless to say we picked the best day for our crossing – gale force winds and blinding torrential rain.  But we were not to be cowed and set off whacky-racers style on our convoy down to Dover.  Nostalgic to be back at the white cliffs before being swallowed up into the belly of the Pride of York.  Nothing like the number of cars I remember in the lanes in those pre-Eurostar and Chunnel days though.

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Retro travel queueing for the ferry

It may have been a little choppy and there were a few very green looking faces bouncing off the walls as we made our way up and down and across the Channel.  There were also a great many people enjoying hearty fish and chips, doing a spot of shopping and chatting over tea while staring out resolutely at the horizon, thereby batting off the onset of sea-sickness (yours truly).  Despite the weather, we were off and on the road to Brussels on time and even had plenty of time to stop off in Ghent on the way to Brussels for some Belgian chips, mulled wine and a browse around the Christmas market.  So full points for the good old-fashioned sea voyage across the Channel.

Or so I thought.   Just how old-fashioned only really came clear on the return journey when rough (understatement) seas prevented us from crossing for over two hours.  Not a problem said the apologetic note from the French port authorities as they would like to “draw our attention to the facilities offered in the Terminal building: toilets, a cafeteria and a bar”.This, we soon realised after arriving at said establishment after braving horizontal rain and gusts sweeping you off your feet, was actually a ‘slight’ overstatement.  We found no Terminal building.  Just a big sign pointing to a small (heated – small mercies) room with a toilet and three overused heaving vending machines.  Not quite what it said on the tin.  The contents of my thimble-sized plastic cup were most definitely not ‘rich tomato soup’.  The ‘creamy hot chocolate’ and ‘rich vegetable soup’ (naive waste of money or generous attempt to give the machine the benefit-of-the doubt?) were neither creamy, rich, or chocolate or vegetable.  Rather than apologise for the “adverse weather conditions causing delays”, they might have wanted to focus on their “cafeteria and bar”.  Just a suggestion.

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The “Terminal building”

Tomato soup, vegetable soup or hot chocolate?

The “cafe” and “bar”

So the retro road-trip, Channel cruise choice falling short of a gold star.  But then if we were judging on authenticity of the retro journey, I suppose the French port authorities have indeed stayed with a traditional 1970s ‘coffee shop’ offering; rather apt for fer ry crossings that have been around for decades and survived the advances in technology and invasion of Costa offee shops everywhere else.  It just would have been nice if rather than dressing it up as ‘Le petit café du coin’, they’d told us it was indeed a coin’ and ‘petit’, but your chances of any ‘café’ were slim to grey and luke-warm.  They could in fact learn from Eurostar, which on an earlier trip, as we pulled out of Waterloo station (in the olden days before the move to St Pancras) we were greeted with the announcement that the buffet car had run out of tea, hot food and small cups.  Abysmal and in record time, yes.  But at least there was no attempt at cover-up or glamorising.  You will pay through the nose, probably be delayed on the French side due to strikes, and on the UK side due to leaves on the line, and throughout your journey you WILL enjoy a wide range of snacks; namely ready salted crisps and large cups of coffee.  Simple.

So if you’re looking for speed without frills and a city-to-city jaunt – I’d go Eurostar, but take a picnic and a good book in case there are leaves on the line or a fire in the tunnel (to be fair that’s only happened once I think).  If you’re looking for a road trip and are happy to take it easy and see some countryside – I’d go with the ferry, but take a picnic, sea-sickness tablets and check the weather forecast first.

Either way it’s all part of the experience of seeing family when like mine, it’s multinational and everyone’s scattered across Europe (I haven’t tried the trains across Germany but am told by my German relative that they are very punctual and clean – well, they would be wouldn’t they).  I just wonder what some of the visiting tourists think.  The Japanese manage to get drink dispensers to the top of some of the highest mountains, the Americans have food outlets every few hundred yards on every road, and the Australians couldn’t have horizontal rain and weather-delayed ferries if they tried.  What a culture shock it must be when they come and visit our Europe.  And on reflection how delicate of them to only call it ‘quaint’.