A Cup of Tea is Not Everyone’s Cup of Tea

There is one nation that understands tea better than the British

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One of the trials of being a Brtish expat is getting supplies of tea. Despite living outside the UK for forty years, I have never yet discovered a local brew that can replace the flavour and strength of a real cuppa. Even if the package says English Breakfast tea, if it hasn’t been sold from a shop in that green and pleasant land, it's not the real thing.

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Expat’s Aid Package. Photo: Moshe Forman

The Brits actually conquered the whole Indian subcontinent to ensure a secure supply of tea. They had planned to conquer China for the same purpose, but when that fell through they subjugated India instead. So you see, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire was actually Plan B (or maybe that should be Plan T). Conquering India was probably going a bit too far, and I wouldn’t recommend doing it again, although when I’ve been without the brew for a while, I can understand the temptation. Fortunately, it’s much more convenient these days to order real English tea from one of those specialist websites, thus avoiding the unpleasant task of subjugating a whole people who get your hands on that perfect blend of Assam and


Having said that, there is one nation on earth who actually understand tea better than the British; the Sri Lankans, or as we tea drinkers still call it, Ceylon. I discovered this a couple of years ago while sitting in the tea room at a plantation high in the mountains of central Sri Lanka. The perfectly-liveried waiter poured me a cup of the golden liquid into the perfectly-white porcelain cup. I realised, to my horror, that he was not intending to add milk to the sublime liquid. When I requested it, he replied with a look of disdain that milk was added to tea graded as 4 or 5. I had, apparently, been served tea grade 3.

“Oh,” I replied, with a nonchalant ‘I knew that’ shrug of the shoulders. Thus I discovered that the Sri Lankans divide their tea into five grades of strength. This would be all a bit complicated for the average Brit who drinks his tea strong or extra strong, and never, perish the thought, without milk.

During my sojourn in Sri Lanka, I often steered the conversation in the direction of their imperial past. As a former Brit, it interests me to hear how our former colonies remember us. I was surprised by the practical nature of their replies. It was not, as I expected, a diatribe against the evils of imperialism, but a balance of good and bad. The good was the economic development that the British brought. They built the railways, the roads and above all, the tea industry. On the negative side, the imperial overlords are blamed for bringing alcohol to the island, and for hunting so many of the elephants.

Some will argue that the Chinese are the true masters of tea. I’ve heard it said that in a Chinese tea-house you can be served with over forty different varieties of tea, some being meant only for smelling. Following my a faux pas with the Sri Lankan waiter, I might give that a miss. Anyhow, if they don’t put milk in their tea, I’m not sure I’d even find anything to drink.

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Photo by delfi de la Rua on Unsplash

When I moved to Israel over forty years ago, one of the essential pieces of equipment I brought with was a tea-cosy. When I presented my local guests with the thus adorned tea-pot, I was confronted by a tidal wave of hysterical laughter that continued for about a week. Since then, my use of the tea cosy has been a stealth activity, done only by myself or in the presence of consenting Englishmen. Even today, forty years on, I am reminded of the tea cosy incident. Those who were not present on that fateful day are usually sceptical as to whether such a thing exists, and I have to provide physical evidence to prove that I’m not delusional.

I’m now going off to put the kettle on. Whatever your blend, have a splendid day. May your brew never go stale.

Written by

When I’m not a poet, novelist, or writer of short stories, I’m a writer of creative non-fiction exploring Self, Food, Society and History. www.mosheforman.com

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