An Expat’s Guide to Serving the British Cuppa

EMILY: As an American living in France, I’ve been introduced to the thriving expat community that resides here in Provence. I am lucky to have developed friendships with people from all over the world, including several lovely and wonderful folks from the UK.

Recently, a friend from Scotland came over. It was a crisp day and I had just put the kettle on for a cup of tea. I asked if she would also like a cup. Alas, as a green tea drinker, all I had stocked in my cupboard was an array of green teas and an errant bag or two of chamomile.

When I revealed this fact, Sal’s face immediately fell. “Oh yes,” she sighed, “I forgot I’m in an American house. Next time I see you, I’ll give you some tea I brought back from the UK.”

After disappointing my Scottish friend with my lack of proper tea, I surveyed my other British friends as to the best tea to have on hand and how to serve “a proper cup.”

To save anyone else from suffering the embarrassment of my faux pas when hosting a British friend for an afternoon, I’ve asked fellow expat and UK native Pippa to guide us non-Brits on how to serve a proper cup of tea.

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The authors, Pippa and Emily, enjoy a cuppa together.

PIPPAWhen I moved to France from England, I discovered that the British cuppa occupies only one corner of a massive tea field, and an invitation for a cup of tea did not guarantee a drink with which I had any familiarity.

So, for the sake and well-being of all the Brits craving their cuppa abroad, I have assembled a list of the fundamentals for serving a British friend a proper cup of tea:

THE TEA

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In the UK, the offer of a cup of tea usually means only one thing: a hot, brown, milky drink. No need to identify it, but sometimes you might be asked, “India or China?” or “Is PG okay?” The former refers to Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, or Lapsang Souchong; the latter to a blend (PG Tips in this case). Everyone has their favourite blend: Yorkshire Tea, PG Tips, Typhoo, etc. As long as you have one of these in the cupboard, you’re safe.

THE WATER

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The water should be freshly boiled and poured over the bag or an infuser with loose tea. Do not dunk your bag in the water—dunking is for biscuits. Science says about 96°C is perfect, so there!

THE POT

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If making a pot (God bless you!), you should warm it first with boiling water. You don’t want to mess with the temperature!

THE CUP

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Seriously, tea tastes different whether it is in a china, glass, metal, plastic, or cardboard cup. Of course, needs must, but I’m sure it’s obvious which works best with the British cuppa.

THE TECHNIQUE

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Leave for a minimum of 30 seconds. I’ve found three minutes is quite nice. I’ve just finished a cuppa that stewed for eight minutes, but I have a weakness for “builders tea” (strong and sweet enough to stand the spoon up in it and put hairs on your chest—pardon the imagery).

Important Note: Do not squeeze the bag to speed up the process! It makes the tea more bitter. You can swirl it if you want. Carefully.

THE MILK

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I was always taught that best practice is milk first. A member of my family once had tea with Prince Charles (oo, get us) and confirms that even he’s a “Miffy.” This avoids staining or scalding the cup and it means you do not have to stir if you don’t take sugar.

However, this has to go by the wayside if making tea from one bag in a cup. You can’t put milk on a bag! So, it is only relevant to tea made in a pot. And no, I’m not going to bother asking whether you should add milk or not! We are talking about the British cuppa here—you only omit milk if you have an upset tummy or are a student.

THE SUGAR

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If you take sugar, like me, and ignore the dentist, boring old white sugar is the best. Sorry, but brown sugar, caster sugar (sucre en poudre), fake carcinogenic sweeteners, etc. do not taste the same as white granulated sugar (sucre crystal).

THE BISCUITS

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Biscuits are a necessity for the full experience. There are so many to choose from and every Brit has their favourite (Hobnobs, Bourbons, Custard Creams, Jammy dodgers, Digestives, etc). My favourite: Rich Teas, to dunk. Some consider dunking bad manners, but why else do such bland biscuits exist? Normally you don’t want anything too fancy disintegrating in your cup, but each to their own, I say. Just remember to provide a teaspoon.

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So, there you have it. I’m sure opinions on such a fundamental topic will vary and, of course, adapt your tea-making for your own needs and those of your guest. And please don’t stop initiating us in the wonderful, alternative global pantheon of hot beverages—new experiences are all part of living abroad after all. But I don’t think you can underestimate the magical effect of a good British cuppa on a Brit abroad: the instant relaxation and warm mushy feelings of gratitude and friendship.

Hmm, after all that, I think it’s time to put the kettle on.

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Emily

A native of Chicago, Emily is a professional writer and communications specialist living in Provence. An avid traveler, she has explored 30 countries on six continents. She holds a degree in English from the University of Illinois. Emily, her husband, and their four children moved to the lavender fields, vineyards, and olive groves of Provence in 2017.

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