TOAST Magazine

Tea

FOOD & DRINK

Orlando Gough

Put the kettle on

Put the kettle on

It is the British answer

to Armageddon

Never mind the taxes rise

Never mind the trains are late

One thing you can be sure of

and that’s the kettle, mate.

What ever happened to tea? Once it was a central pillar of our national identity. Probably because for a long time it was a central pillar of our national economy. Tea – opium – silver: a brilliant trade triangle masterminded by the East India Company, using methods that seem, in retrospect, amazingly modern; for example, the off-loading of the dangerous and ethically suspect part of the trade – the delivery of the opium to the Chinese – to intermediaries, enabling the Honourable Company itself to remain apparently squeaky clean. The opium, essentially, buys the tea, which is shipped back to Blighty where it becomes a symbol of a decent kind of Britishness, upright, hard-working, true. A brilliant sleight of hand.

It’s not whether you lose

It’s not whether you win

It’s whether or not

You’ve plugged the kettle in.

May the kettle ever hiss

May the kettle ever steam

It is the engine

that drives our nation’s dream.

Then, gradually, insidiously, tea turned into coffee (while in parallel, almost, the empire collapsed, and cricket turned into football). How can it have happened? It seems to have been part of the Europeanisation of Britain ushered in by Elizabeth David and Terence Conran in the 50s and 60s – French food and wine, Italian furniture, Greek holidays. It was more particularly a Mediterraneanisation, an attempt to deny our climate and live a more carefree outdoor social life (hence those heaters that attempt heat the outside world, a crime against ecology, not to say common sense). And an important aspect of that was the coffee house, with its chairs and tables on the street. Relaxed, sociable. What could be nicer?

Now that innovation has come to bite us. Starbucks, Caffé Nero, Pret a Manger, Eat, Costa etc etc are almost the only businesses left on the high street. Shopping turns into sociability, perhaps. But can you have the sociability without the shopping? I’d like to think you can actually. The high street as a place to meet, and talk, and see stuff together, and do stuff together – it’s a lovely proposition, though one that needs a bit of work.

It’s astonishing that we can drink so much coffee – and eye-wateringly expensive coffee, at that. The standard of the coffee has definitely improved, particularly with the advent of those clever Australian people, with their flat whites, and their enthusiastic obsession with provenance and water temperature. (I went into a delightful independent coffee house recently, and drank a delicious cup of coffee, but had to leave prematurely while the barrista was telling the nth person exactly where the beans came from, how he was planning to make the coffee, and what it was going to taste like: ‘...washed Yirg....updosed....pulled longer....clean and light, creamy body and mouthfeel, strawberries on the nose...’ - a mixture of porn novel and wine-tasting manual.) But what about our health? Are we getting over-caffeinnated? Are we drowning in frothed milk?

And this is where tea might be stealing back into the picture. A suspicion that tea might be better for us, particularly green teas and rooibush teas and herbal teas. (Are those horror stories about herbal teas just rumours, or is there some truth in them?) As we run more half-marathons and spend more time in the gym, are we going to return to the old decent morally upright tradition of tea-drinking?

Long live the kettle

that rules over us

May it be limescale free

and may it never rust

Sing it from the beaches

Sing it from the housetops

The sun may set on empire

but the kettle never stops.

PS The poem is by the great John Agard, who has also written a wonderful poem about coffee – or rather a poem about heaven and coffee – which affirms the coffee dishonourable, tea honourable principle:

You’ll be greeted

by a nice cup of coffee

when you get to heaven

and strains of angelic harmony.

But wouldn’t you be devastated

if they only serve decaffeinated

while from the percolators of hell

your soul was assaulted

by Satan’s fresh espresso smell?

PPS Now, not only has the empire collapsed, tea turned into coffee and cricket into football, but the weather’s changing. Is nothing sacred?

We’ve published a book of Orlando’s recipes full of similar tales. For more about Orlando Gough Recipe Journal click here.

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