So, what are these signs of hope for a tea snob in Britain, the land of bagged black tea in milk?
Before I even came to London, I noticed on a map that the original Twining’s store was just down the Strand from my campus. In my early days here, I would frequently pop round for some free samples of whatever was brewing that day. The staff there are often giving demonstrations or showcasing particular teas, and during one such demonstration, a staffer had patrons drink Earl Grey that had been brewed from loose leaf tea, followed by Earl Grey from a teabag; comparisons were then invited. I was stunned and delighted that so prominent a merchant as Twining’s was trying to educate the public about the inferiority of a product that they themselves sell!
And last November I went to a Tea and Coffee Festival at the South Bank Centre, and heard Henrietta Lovell of Rare Tea Company speak with almost religious zeal in urging her compatriots to repent and turn away from the plonk they have been drinking for so long.
I began to realise that the British custom of drinking tea so bad that it has to be disguised by milk and sugar may not reflect the strongly-held predilections of the majority of the population; it may just be that most people grew up not knowing there was any other way to take tea, just as many Americans are probably unaware that it’s possible to enjoy chocolate that is not overwhelmed by milk, candy coatings or other distractions.
Well, this past week, I had the opportunity to go to Fortnum & Mason — an official supplier of tea to the royal family — as part of the London Study Ambassador Programme. There we had tea and cakes and a chance to talk with Dr. Andrea Tanner, the senior archvist for F&M, and Yvonne Isherwood, the Design Manager. Once again, the best part of tea time was the cakes, but this was not due to inferior tea — far from it! Rather, it was because of superior cakes, in particular the rose éclairs which had been made in-house.
I was impressed with Dr. Tanner’s reflexivity. She noted that putting milk in tea simply “covers up a multitude of sins.” And she acknowledged that it might sound arrogant to say that Fortnum’s has established enough of a reputation that they need not seek the blessing of third party certifications like Fairtrade (which, by the way, may not be all that ethical anyway) — but it’s true. I was impressed also with her attention to the social history of tea — as opposed to the more familiar economic history. She told us tales of Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wife of Charles II who first brought tea to England, and of house servants selling the twice-steeped tea leaves of their employers out the back doors of their estates. And we learned of the extreme luxury that tea once was: Fortnum’s has in its archives the copy of a receipt given to a customer in the 18th century for five packets of tea that cost the equivalent of one month’s wages for an average worker at the time.
Fortnum’s is not merely a teamonger, of course; they sell all of the finer things of life: Champagne, charcuterie, chocolate etc. But tea clearly still occupies a special place at Fortnum’s. On the ground floor is the counter with large canisters full of loose-leaf teas and on the very top floor is the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon (opened by HM herself last year) where one can partake in High Tea or have a tutored tasting of fine teas (we had our tea and cakes in The Drawing Room). It is almost as if tea were meant to bookend the store.
Why is the prominent role of tea at Fortnum’s and the commitment to teas that, in the words of Dr. Tanner, have a story to tell, so encouraging to me? Because it’s nice to see that there are places where tea is taken seriously, and is sold, but not commodified. And there are people –influential people, mind you!– who are able to view tea as something that is deeply entangled in complex social and economic histories but that also forms the crux of a profoundly emotional experience.