Tea please!

Top to bottom: Traditional Chinese tea. A ‘proper’ cup of British tea… but should it be milk or tea first? Portuguese Princess, Catherine of Braganza, started the tea craze in this country and finally, tea smugglers!While rummaging around with the TV remote recently, I stumbled across a historical take on tea, starting with the origins of the tea cup, and I started thinking about the significant part it has played in our history.

Tea is often thought of as being a quintessentially British drink and, while we have been drinking it for over 350 years, the history of tea goes much further back. The story of tea begins in China where tea drinking became established many centuries before it had even been heard of in the west.

In the latter half of the sixteenth century there are the first brief mentions of tea as a drink among Europeans. These are mostly from Portuguese living in the East as traders and missionaries. But it was not the Portuguese who were the first to ship back tea as a commercial import. This was done by the Dutch, who in the last years of the sixteenth century, began to encroach on Portuguese trading routes in the East. Tea soon became a fashionable drink among the Dutch, and from there spread to other countries in continental western Europe.

A cup of char!
We Brits, always a little suspicious of continental trends, had yet to become the nation of tea drinkers that we are today. The first dated reference to tea in this country is from an advert in a London newspaper from September 1658. It announced that ‘China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee’ was on sale at a coffee house in the City… and that’s why people talk about a ‘cup of char’!

We owe it all to a Portuguese Princess
It was the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza that was a turning point in the history of tea in Britain. She was a Portuguese princess, and a tea addict, and it was her love of the drink that established tea as a fashionable beverage first at court, and then among the wealthy classes as a whole. 

Milk in first or last?
Putting the milk in last was considered to be the ‘correct’ thing to do in refined social circles, but the real reason for this is often forgotten. In the early days of tea-drinking, poor-quality cups were inclined to crack when hot tea was poured into them, and putting the milk in first helped to prevent this. When finer and stronger materials came into use, this was no longer necessary – so putting the milk in last became a way of showing that one had the finest china on one’s table! Evelyn Waugh once recorded a friend using the phrase ‘rather milk-in-first’ to refer to a lower-class person, and the habit became a social divider that had little to do with the taste of the tea…

Tea smuggling and taxation
Tea became a popular drink in coffee houses, as much locations for the transaction of business as they were for relaxation or pleasure and were the preserve of middle and upper-class men. Women drank tea in their own homes, and as yet, tea was still too expensive to be widespread among the working classes. In part, its high price was due to a punitive system of taxation. The first tax on tea in the leaf, introduced in 1689, was so high at 25p in the pound that it almost stopped sales. It was reduced to 5p in the pound in 1692, and from then until as recently as 1964 (amazing!), when tea duties were finally abolished, politicians were forever tinkering with the exact rate and method of the taxation of tea.

One unforeseen consequence of the taxation of tea was the growth of methods to avoid taxation – smuggling and adulteration. By the eighteenth century many Britons wanted to drink tea but could not afford it, and their enthusiasm for the drink was matched by the enthusiasm of criminal gangs to smuggle it in. What began as a small time illegal trade, selling a few pounds of tea to personal contacts, developed by the late eighteenth century into an astonishing organised crime network, perhaps importing as much as 7 million pounds (weight) annually, compared to a legal import of 5 million pounds! Worse for the drinkers was that taxation also encouraged the adulteration of tea, particularly of smuggled tea which was not quality controlled through customs and excise. Leaves from other plants, or leaves which had already been brewed and then dried, were added to tea leaves. Sometimes the resulting colour was not convincing enough, so anything from sheep’s dung to poisonous copper carbonate was added to make it look more like tea – euw!

By 1784, the government realised that enough was enough, and that heavy taxation was creating more problems than it was worth. The new Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, slashed the tax from 119 per cent to 12.5 per cent. Suddenly legal tea was affordable, and smuggling stopped virtually overnight.

The topic of tea is huge and fascinating, I could go on… about when cups got their handles, why tea caddies were so important and, of course, the Boston Tea Party. But perhaps I will save that for another time. I’ll just nip off and have a cuppa now…

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Ahhh… April!

I do like it when April comes around, I really feel as if Spring is properly underway with the sun climbing ever higher in the sky and the evenings drawing out after the clocks change to British Summer Time.

It is the month that we see most of the plants and hedgerows bursting into life and the birds starting their annual courtship. April 14th is Cuckoo Day when their first call of the year is often heard, followed on the 15th by Swallow Day and the promise of long lazy days of Summer to come – we hope! But beware, April can always plunge us back into the dead of winter without any warning.

“March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers”, is a proverb we are probably all familiar with. But why do we get these classic ‘April showers’? One of the major reasons is the position of the jet stream. A band of very strong winds at around 30,000ft above the surface of the Earth, the jet stream controls the weather that we see on the ground.

High and low pressure systems are formed when the air in the jet stream speeds up or slows down. In early spring the jet stream starts to move northwards allowing large depressions to bring strong winds and rain in from the Atlantic. In one day the weather can change from springtime sunshine to winter sleet and snow.

April can bring all types of weather from sunshine to thunder, from fog and frost to mild muggy and drizzly days. The lowest April temperature for the United Kingdom is a dreadful minus 15°C on April 2nd 1917 in Cumbria – can you imagine?! And then again, it can become very warm with a record temperature recorded in London of 29.4°C on the 16th April 1949.

Cuckoo Day on April 14th is also St.Tiburtius’ Day – not a saint I have come across before. There is a very odd superstition that says if you hear the cuckoo sing on St.Tiburtius’ Day you should turn over all the money in your pockets, spit(!) and not look at the ground. If you do this and are standing on soft ground when you do it, you will have plenty of good luck. However, if you are standing on hard ground, the cuckoo’s call means bad luck. Um, I think I will pass on that one and just enjoy listening out for the cuckoo and its unique call.

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Easter time

So it’s Easter time again… But it’s a different date to last year. So why is it that the date of Easter can vary by up to a month? The problem is that Easter is one of the festivals that tries to harmonise the solar and lunar calendars. As a general rule, Easter falls on the first Sunday, following the first full moon after 21 March. But not always…

The problem comes because a solar year (the length of time it takes the earth to move round the sun) is 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 12 seconds whereas a lunar year is 354.37 days. Calculating one against another is seriously complicated! There are literally dozens of permutations that are way beyond me to explain, but take my word for it – it’s complicated!

Having got the peculiarities of the date out of the way, what about the various traditions we associate with Easter? Two of the most popular are the Easter egg and the good old Easter Bunny!

A lot of us may chomp on chocolate eggs at Easter but originally eating eggs was not allowed by the church during the week leading up to Easter, known as Holy Week. Any eggs laid that week were saved and decorated to make them ‘Holy Week eggs’ that were then given to children as gifts.

The first chocolate eggs appeared in France and Germany in the 19th century but were bitter and hard. As chocolate-making techniques improved, hollow eggs like the ones we have today, were developed. Unsurprisingly, they very quickly became popular and remain so!

As with so many ‘traditions’ that we hold dear today, we only need to go back as far as the Victorians to establish how the Easter egg as a decorated gift developed. They adapted the traditional egg and, with their customary lavishness, created satin covered cardboard eggs filled with Easter gifts.

So finally, where does that fluffy little character the Easter Bunny fit in? The story of the Easter Bunny is thought to have become popular in the 19th century. Rabbits usually give birth to a big litter of babies, or kittens, so they became a symbol of new life. Legend has it that the terribly industrious Easter bunny lays, decorates and hides eggs as they are also a symbol of new life. But she doesn’t do all the work alone though – in Switzerland, Easter eggs are delivered by a cuckoo, and by a fox in parts of Germany.

Happy Easter to one and all – and don’t eat too much chocolate!

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More food fun…!

Top to bottom: Sally Lunn Bun, Cornish Hevva Cake, Bath Chaps and Spotted Dick.Following on from an earlier blog, here are some more foods with funny names… childish, me…?!

The Sally Lunn Bun
In the 17th century, the ‘Sally Lunn bun’ became synonymous with the fashionable city of Bath. ‘Sally’ is thought to have been a Frenchwoman named Solange Luyon but, thanks to her colleagues’ poor French, when the bun became a popular delicacy in Georgian times it was mispronounced and became known as the Sally Lunn bun. 

However, as is often the way… there is disagreement over the name’s origin. A similar French breakfast cake known as a ‘solei et lune’ (it being golden on top like the sun and pale on the bottom like the moon) gave rise to the suggestion that the baker could have been crying “Sol et lune! Solei lune!” in her French accent and passers-by misheard it as ‘Sally Lunn’. I quite like both of these explanations.

Cornish Hevva Cake
Cornish hevva cake, also known as heavy cake, is a simple cake associated with the pilchard fishing industry. It is said that when fisherman hauled aboard a pilchard shoal they would cry “hevva” to let their wives know to start baking the hevva cake. Its history is reflected in the diagonal lines scored across its top before it goes in the oven so it comes out looking like a fishing net. I can well imagine them all shouting ‘heave’ as they toiled away, but I guess the ‘hevva’ story is altogether more interesting!

Bath Chaps
Bath Chaps are the lower portion of a long-jawed pig’s cheeks and sometimes part of the tongue, pickled and boiled, skinned and rolled in breadcrumbs. The word ‘chap’ is a variant of ‘chop’ that, in the 16th century, meant an animal’s jaws and cheeks. They were very much a West Country delicacy and may well have been delicious, but are probably a little too graphic-sounding for many of us today!

Spotted Dick
Well, I suppose I had to finish off with this one! The ‘spotted’ part is due to the raisins or currants studded all over the pudding. The word ‘dick’ is said to have denoted a plain pudding and could be a shortening of pudding to ‘ding’, which then became ‘dick’. Amazing how words and phrases change over time!

 

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Funny food!

Top to bottom: Fidget Pie, Toad in the Hole, Singin’ Hinnies and Dead Man’s Arm… sorry, that should be Jam Roly Poly!Coming across things with funny names always makes me chuckle and I think some of the old-fashioned names we have for particular recipes are a hoot! Of course, working out their original meaning is often guesswork, but there are some very interesting ones out there. Here are a few you might enjoy…

Fidget Pie
Fidget pie is a traditional English dish made from a small pastry case filled with gammon, onion, potatoes, cider and apple and topped with cheese and a pastry lid. Some believe the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘fitched’, meaning five-sided. The Oxford English Dictionary says the word appeared in the late 18th century as fitchet-pie, perhaps from fitchet, a dialect word for ‘polecat’, because of the strong, unpleasant odour of the pie during cooking. Really?!

Toad in the Hole
Some say this quintessentially British dish got its name because the sausages in batter look like little amphibians peeking out of a hole. But there’s also the possibility it could be linked to a pub game known as ‘toad in the hole’ in which players try to throw a heavy disc – the toad – through a hole in a lead-topped table. Could there have been some resemblance between the two when they were put on the table? I think I prefer the first option.

Singin’ Hinnies
While they may sound like a 1980s pop group, Singin’ hinnies are actually flat, scone-like cakes from the Northumberland area, originally made from a large piece of dough that was cooked on a griddle over the home fire before being split into segments. Singin’ hinnies take their name from the sizzling sounds they make as they cook. They are said to sing because butter and milk or cream would drip and sizzle merrily in the scolding pan. The term ‘hinnie’ is another way of saying ‘honey’ and is used as a term of endearment, often to describe children.

Dead Man’s Arm
Another name for the jam roly poly is the ‘dead man’s arm’, not just because it looks like one when the jam spurts out, but because it was often wrapped in an old shirt sleeve to be steamed. I think I will stick to calling it jam roly poly, thank you, slightly more appetising!

I have a few more up my sleeve (pun intended!) so will share those with you in a later blog. But meanwhile, do share any interestingly named dishes that you know of. There are lots of regional variations I am sure!

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