(Disclaimer: All thoughts here are my own and are not intended as insults. I believe we cannot separate Food from issues of Identity, History, and Culture and so if anyone’s offended by my musings below, let’s have Tea and talk about it…for it’s unlikely I’ll apologize for them).
The British practice of Afternoon Tea is said to have started in the early 19th century when Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, requested for tea – a Darjeeling most likely – and a light snack be brought into her boudoir to combat “that sinking feeling” that usually accompanied the early afternoon hours. Whether this sinking feeling was truly just a case of the hunger pangs brought about by the long, food-less gap between the morning and evening meals, or something more morose, is a point of curiosity for me. The existential realization in the late afternoon that you haven’t quite gotten to the things you said you would do today, and facing the real possibility of another squandered moment does seem to produce the same effect as hunger; screw it let’s just eat. Nevertheless, the practice spread first within Anna’s circle of similarly ennui-bound friends and later to the drawing rooms across Britain as an “important social practice” amongst those who had all the money and time they could want and nary the idea what to do with it.
The practice grew in size, splendor, and variety with many British establishments now offering version of the repast complete with tea tastings, finger sandwiches, cakes, scones, jams, and for us tourists, a good measure of poshness. Some venues appealed to traditionalists and the glamourati, others favored the whimsical, while one even skewed Japanese. The practice is no longer just a bridge between meals but a meal in itself that require reservations what with all us voyagers – colonizers and the colonized alike – flocking with a veritable trunkload of selfie-paraphernalia, our best attempts at British fashion à la Royal Family, and more often than not, tired feet from attempting to “see London” in the few vacation days we’re allowed. While I skipped the London Eye and the Globe Theater, there was no way I was skipping this uniquely British meal, and I called every venue serving traditional Afternoon Tea on my list until finally copping a seat at the iconic Fortnum & Mason.
Of course, every other will-travel-for-food wanderer thought the same thing and upon entering the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon (opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in honor of her reign), I noticed how tourists almost outnumbered the locals. Absent were the dark wood, soaring windows, and slow movements of the high snobiety. The quiet tinkle of the Grand Piano competed with the cacophony of languages and the loud clatter of silverware. Boisterous celebrations from midday bachelorette crews with makeup still intact to middle-aged women reuniting with “the girls” over bottles of champagne were interspersed with slightly nervous couples on their first trip together, bedraggled parents attempting to quell children who preferred to reenact the bloody history of the Tower of London than to sit and quietly enjoy – in regal “yes Mother dear” fashion – a scone with clotted cream. Food was brought out quickly, efficiently, and with practiced lines and had there been a little less grace, a sight of a dim sum cart careening in between the signature F&M pale-green chairs with steamed dumplings would not have surprised me. Welcome to Afternoon Tea in the Age of Globalization.
My traditionalist sensibility opted for the Afternoon Tea with Rare Tea Tasting and I set about poring over the extensive tea list. With five different tea grades, five main tea types each with several varieties, an additional three different blend categories, a selection of herbal infusions, and a small cast of Single Origin Teas, I quickly gave up and ceded control over to the “Tearista” (I daresay the name sounds a tad bit out-of-place; more Starbucks in Midtown Manhattan, less Tea in Piccadilly) to resolve the Paradox of Choice. We agreed upon four to taste and one to fill a tea pot with:
- Yellow Buds – the only choice under the ultra-rare Yellow Tea section from Mannong, one of the oldest tea cultivation areas in the world (I’m a sucker for the Old School). Light and mellow, the small batches are wrapped in cotton to allow a slight oxidation. Frankly, I didn’t taste much. Perhaps I shouldn’t have imposed my taste buds with a Smoked Salmon Sandwich prior. Fun fact: yellow tea is so rare it was only reproduced in the early 1900s centuries after its first introduction as tea for the Chinese royalty.
- Dalreoch Smoked White – off-menu and the color of whisky, the taste reminded me of a proper dram of Islay I had a few days earlier on a jaunt to Edinburgh.
- Castleton Moonlight – an Oolong-style Darjeeling. The description says “hints of yellow fruit” though I tasted no lemon, bananas, nor pears. No apricots, nectarines, or pineapple either. Instead, I was reminded more of chocolate and the thought of pairing a seaweed side dish (my taste buds were also undergoing a quarter-life crisis it seemed).
- Bannockburn First Flush – a Fortnum exclusive Darjeeling (I’m a sucker for the Exclusive), I smelled spice and citrus and paired sips with a sudden hankering for noodles.
- Countess Grey – my personal favorite. So much so that I brought a good amount with me back to NY. The saucier sister of the Earl Grey, this one smelled and tasted of Orange rather than Bergamot, went well with cream, sugar, and every damn sandwich they had (except the Smoked Salmon because that one would much rather have had Gin).
Alongside cup after cup of dark, aromatic tea was a spread of dainty, perfectly cut tea sandwiches: Cucumber with Mint & Lemon Butter, Mayonnaise with Chives, Coronation Chicken (made to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth). Scones and a variety of jams bulked up the table, and for those with enough willpower and proper pacing (or just more friends to share a table with), a cart filled with cakes and other pastries.
It’s worth mentioning here that I chose to do tea how the Duchess of Bedford originally did tea: alone in the privacy of my own thoughts. Thus, strategizing what and how much to eat (refills were free) and drink were not only difficult tasks but as is common during the life of a solitary traveller, a certain discomfort begins to settle in; that nagging itch of having to sit with yourself. The food will only hold your attention for a while and people-watching, despite the colorful parties of fellow sippers around me, loses its luster and the only place left to go is inwards. My mind invariably drifted to an initial layer of self-consciousness: is it weird that I’m alone? Am I dressed right? I wonder what’s going on on social media? Will I have enough time to see Tourist Attraction X later? Am I doing this “tea thing” right? Should I be putting cream and sugar in this cup (which I later did)?
That last thought took me back to my childhood when, upon being instructed by a teacher of Indian descent in school to buy her some tea (“Just tea” she answered when I asked if she’d like anything in it), I came rushing back with a plain, black Lipton tea in a styrofoam cup. Her reaction was one of disbelief and derision, “Where is the milk and sugar?”. “You asked for just tea,” I answered. Laughing with her other fellow teachers in the lounge, “every civilized person knows that tea is drunk with cream and sugar,” she sneered, deriding centuries of “uncivilized” and milk-less Chinese and East Asian tea culture. I wondered then, in between bites of more Coronation Chicken which had Indian influences, who decided that the epitome of civility would be a dash of dairy and sweetener in tea. I paused, sipped my now creamy tea, and thanked the good folks of Britain’s Royalty for “civilizing” my perfectly fine cup of tea.
Reflecting on the rest of my trip through London, the effects of colonization were everywhere but none more evident and quotidian than the food. “Oh we don’t even eat our own food, we just take other cultures’,” a coworker remarked to me. “British food!? It’s inedible and I wouldn’t bother,” a fellow traveller exclaimed. “I suppose you could eat Pie…but our Indian and Turkish are where it’s at,” offered complete strangers whom I bothered at a restaurant, desperate to find “British food”. For a nation that dictated what in the world was civilized and proper for so long, it was surprisingly difficult to find out exactly where proper British food was located. One couldn’t just pop into a random corner shop and find a quality plate of Fish & Chips, Pie, Pudding, or Roast. One had to find select gastro pubs, or wait until the traditional Sunday Roast. A Google Search for “typical British foods” fared no better, returning a dizzying palette of browns and yellows, of meats and starch fried, roasted, or baked. The rare fruits and vegetables I saw were a roast tomato for the English Breakfast or mushy peas as a side to a more sizable plate of Fish & Chips.
Of course I’m generalizing and there were many a fantastic restaurant serving delicious food, let alone greens, though these skewed more modern and were rarely ever “British”. Still, the amount of “Oh we don’t really have our own thing, try Restaurant X for Culture Y food instead” I heard sharply contrasted with the pride I heard from other culinary backgrounds, especially of those previously colonized. Perhaps in the midst of colonization, food was a way for a population to retain their identity even as a new one was being forced down their throat like a piece of bland meat seasoned to fit the British palate. And yet Britain’s history of colonization and conquest was still trumpeted with pride, unapologetic and at times, even comical. A friendly pat on the back and a “We had some wild times back in our day didn’t we old chap?”. Tour guides poked fun at their age-old rival France, the bumbling separatists America who were now being served a karmic dish in the form of Trump, and anyone who stood in the way of Britain’s noble efforts to civilize the world. But while colonization was watered down, made the butt of witty tour guide banter, and the nasty bits conveniently hidden under a thick gravy of jokes and a puff pastry of “water under the bridge”, some signs couldn’t be ignored.
Enter any of Britain’s major churches and you’ll witness a rather curious phenomenon. All around the church, lining doorways, walls, and sconces are grandiose statues of military leaders and plaques. Each glorified a certain conqueror, who, with God’s grace, conquered distant lands and brought honor to the Crown. In fact, a vast majority of the statues and markers I saw were related to the military while a poet, scientist, activist, or woman were far rarer a sight. God, it seemed, was on Britain’s side and He (presumably the British God was Male, White, and decreed that Cream is to Tea what Fishes are to Loaves) made sure everyone knew it.
Long, bloody campaigns may now be just a footnote in walking tour parlance but they were immortalized here in marble. One such plaque in St. Paul’s Cathedral commemorated one of the oldest Indian regiments for helping conduct an invasion on their brown brothers (distant cousins really) of the Philippines in times long forgotten. And thus each Church I visited, while magnificent in aesthetic, brought about a certain sense of unease. As if the stone figures would awaken at any moment and tell me it was here to civilize me by the holy command of God Himself. I couldn’t resist asking the priest guide in Westminster Abbey on the proliferation of such monuments. He shrugged and said: “these were the people who helped make Britain what it is today. Colonization during those times was, after all, an important part of nation-building and so people thought to put them close to God”. And there you have it folks. God save the Queen. Fuck everyone else.
A flute of champagne was set before my near-bursting belly, filled with an unholy amount of carbs soaked in dark tea. Gluttony? Absolutely. But I reasoned that refusing the establishment’s suggestion champagne and a final slice of Battenburg Cake to do tea right would be the “uncivilized” thing to do. As my body slowed from the caloric assault and my mind buzzed from a sugar high, I reflected on this leg of my UK trip this year.
London was steeped in a history that made America look juvenile by comparison and I strolled past many a world-class restaurant, yet I couldn’t shake the unease of experiencing a culture that was responsible for entire pages of history being re-written for the glory of God and King. In the end, it made me appreciate the role of food in the preservation of identity and culture. Curries may have been appropriated, re-packaged, and sold back as “proper”, immigrants might have had their nations “civilized” only to be turned away at the gates of the Kingdom they’ve been told was the epitome of culture, but their food and the stories they hid in between folds of bread and ladles of sauces said something else. God may have saved the Queen from whatever sinking feeling she, the Duchess of Bedford, and the other Tea Drinkers had in the form of a beverage and an excuse to colonize…but not before giving Us a generous slice of Cake first.
An Errant Tip:
A selection of restaurants I mention and have visited on this trip.
Fortnum & Mason – book well in advance especially if you’re arriving as a group and be sure to have enough time to explore their extensive shop not only for their tea but their pastries, candies, and lifestyle sections as well. Piccadilly location (tourist central).
Sosharu – while I did not have their tea, their cocktails in the lounge below “Seven Tales” were fun, inventive, and delicious. The space itself had great vibes too! Clerkenwell (neighborhood full of great design studios and creatives).
Efes Restaurant – get the Pide (Turkish pizza) and fill up on the excellent bread. Whitechapel.
The Castle Holland Park – stop by here after strolling through the beautiful Holland Park. Good selection of beers, high quality gastropub fare, and relaxed vibes.
The Delaunay – posh, practiced service. Proper English fare especially for breakfast and located near the theater/entertainment district as well as shops to wile away the afternoon hours. Covent Garden.