If you’re British, a cup of tea is seen as the solution to many of life’s problems. Crash your car, discover you’re bankrupt, fall down a flight of steps – what you need is “a nice cup of tea”.
A friend of mine once had the job of keeping the cellars of Buckingham Palace stocked with wine. About a year after the tragic death of Princess Diana, Mark (not his real name), was having dinner with a senior member of the Palace staff and, when this gentleman mentioned he had been the unfortunate person who had answered the Palace phone at four am to be told that the princess had been in a car crash and was fighting for her life, Mark asked, “What did you do?”
“I decided to make myself a pot of tea,” he replied.
Telling the story later, Mark reflected. “Can you imagine that being the response at the White House?”
When life’s crises arrive, I want a mug of builder’s tea – strong and sweet. But the phrase ‘builder’s tea’ simply doesn’t exist here in France. French builders drink coffee or red wine when they stop for a break. And as for the French who do drink tea, it bears little resemblance to the British version. On my first visit to France, aged 13, I watched in horror as Nicole’s mother filled three bowls with hot water and, using only one tea bag, dunked it into each bowl, colouring the hot water a faint mahogany. Sugar was on offer but no milk. So this was how they drank tea in France!
Tea has figured a lot in our shared family history. My paternal grandfather was a wealthy tea merchant in Birmingham in the early years of the 20th century. He imported tea from India in plywood crates lined with foil, stamped with “Crawford’s Teas”, which were distributed throughout Birmingham and Solihull to all the corner shops and stores. But then came the Great Depression, and he lost his business and all his money. My father remembers being sent back from his prep school and he, his four sisters, and his parents, left their big house sitting on the back of a flat-bed lorry with a few sticks of furniture, all that they were allowed. The bailiff then drove them across town to the council house that became their new home.
Via my late husband, the tea connection continues – his grandmother was the daughter of a tea planter in India. It’s even possible that my grandfather imported tea from the same tea estate… who knows! Great Granny Wrixson was apparently quite a character. She drank a quarter bottle of champagne every morning for elevenses and would buy her four daughters exotic birds for their birthdays – which were then kept in their mother’s aviary. As well as the champagne, she had a bone china Wedgwood tea service imported out to India.
The same service made the return journey back to London when my future mother-in-law (Great Granny Wrixson’s youngest daughter), returned as a young married bride in the 1930s, and in 2005, in her will she left me the service, so it’s now in the south west of France.
When the boxes arrived, I sent photos of the plates to the Wedgwood Museum and the curator kindly wrote back. She identified it as a service made in the 1870s specifically for the ‘colonial and foreign market’ ie. India, East Africa, and the United States.
After fourteen years of living in France, I had almost given up drinking tea. But having moved into this ancient old house where my days have been filled with more than their fair share of building challenges (drains flooding, roofs leaking, hidden asbestos!), the need for a ‘nice cup of tea‘ has returned!
Recently, Mr. T brought with him a package of Assam B.O.P. from the Algerian Coffee Stores in Soho. Used to the rather powdery French supermarket tea bags, I had forgotten the pleasures of real leaf tea brewed in a proper tea pot.
My daily ritual now includes a four o’ clock tea break and to go with the excellent tea, I have resuscitated one of my mother’s recipes for “Never-Fail Fruit Cake”. It’s a perfect accompaniment for a strong Indian black tea, and lasts a good week in the cake tin. A thick slab – sometimes buttered – keeps me going until supper. Perfect for these cold winter afternoons when the morale and energy sags!
Never-Fail Fruit Cake
NB. Measurements are Imperial – as befits a cake served with tea in a colonial tea service
1 lb mixed dried fruit – I used a mix of sultanas, currants, raisins, and dried cranberries, with a few left-over glacé cherries, chopped in half
8 oz. sugar – I substituted soft brown sugar but plain sugar is fine
4 oz. unsalted butter, cut into chunks
¼ pint of water
8 oz. self-raising flour
2 eggs, beaten
Put all the ingredients, except the flour and eggs, into a heavy-bottomed saucepan, on a low heat. Simmer gently for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Weigh and sieve the flour into a bowl. My mother, in her hand-written recipe, says it must be sieved twice. I have no idea why, but I did it anyway!
Take the fruit mixture off the heat and pour into a large mixing bowl to cool down. When cool, mix in the flour and the beaten egg. “Mix well” says my mother’s recipe. Then pour into a greased lined loaf tin.
Because this dates back to the days when she cooked using an old Aga, she simply wrote “Cook for 1Hr – 1/2hr” so I guessed at just over an hour at 180C. However, my oven was a little too hot so doing it again, I will try 1hr 15 mins at 170C.
The end result was entirely delicious and Mr. T and I had two slices each for tea, using the best Assam, and the tea service which is now nearly 150 years old!