No country has a weirder relationship with an agricultural product as the British do with teaby Jonathan Nunn / April 1, 2020 / Leave a comment
During last year’s general election campaign, the Conservative Party released a video of Boris Johnson wandering through CCHQ faux-casually answering questions that veered between banality (Boris, why are we having this election?) to the inane (Marmite, yes or no?), simultaneously showing off his chummy, faux-everyman credentials while delivering the core of the manifesto in easily digestible soundbites.
About halfway through, Johnson made a cup of tea, topping it up with a dash of semi-skimmed milk and leaving the bag in to stew. The next morning, all people wanted to talk about was his tea-making technique. “This is really how I make my tea. It lets it brew and makes it stronger,” he tweeted in response, gleeful that the video had worked.
No country has a weirder relationship with an agricultural product as the British do with tea. We imbue it with notions of class, gender and authenticity that make next to no sense. Builders’ tea, posh tea. Afternoon tea for ladies, strong breakfast tea for the lads.
Johnson’s video was not the first time he has tried to make a mug of his critics via the medium of tea; just after his infamous “letterbox” column about Muslim women, he cheerfully emerged from his house armed with a heterogeneous tray of steaming mugs for the waiting hacks, just like the mugs in your cupboard, perhaps. No apology, but the images of Johnson mucking in with the tea round made the news.
A Chinese plant
That the tea plant isn’t native to Britain makes the whole thing even more strange. At the end of his incendiary “Long Goodbye” video, actor and rapper Riz Ahmed furiously spits “Britain’s where I’m born and I love a cup of tea and that / but tea ain’t from Britain it’s from where my DNA is at.”
The question of whether tea is British is not as simple to answer as you might think. Tea is a Chinese plant that for millennia stayed within its borders but it was Britain who turned it into the world’s second most popular beverage after water. How proud you are of that probably depends on your general feelings about the British Empire.
Those learning about Britain’s escapades with tea for the first time may feel a rollercoaster of emotions. We started the tea industry in India? A cause for national pride surely! Ah, it was started through a…