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A Nice Cup of Tea


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A nice cup of tea. Photo by James Shade/flickr

That was Miss Binnie Hale, singing a song called ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, which she recorded 70 years ago, in 1941.

We British love tea. We drink more tea per head of population than any other country in the world, except for Ireland. If you go to the Tea Council website, you will see a counter at the top of the page which shows how many cups of tea we have drunk so far today. By the end of the day, the counter will reach 165 million – that is three cups of tea per person per day. Coffee has become more popular in Britain in recent years, but even today we drink more than twice as much tea as coffee.

However, tea drinking is not an old tradition in Britain. We made our first cup of tea sometime in the middle of the 17th century. We found that we liked it, that it refreshed us and made us strong and happy, and we have continued drinking tea ever since. In the 19th century, tea became popular among working-class people, and it has remained the favourite drink of ordinary British people ever since. And it is well-known that the Queen likes a nice cup of tea, as well.

Tea drinking has a much longer history in China, where people have drunk tea for thousands of years. But British tea is not pale and delicate like tea in China. It has a rich brown colour and a strong taste. Nearly everyone in Britain puts milk in their tea, and about a third of people add sugar to make the tea sweet. (Yukk! I cannot stand tea with sugar!) It is well known that no-one outside Britain knows how to make tea properly. When we British go on holiday in, for example, France or Spain, and we ask for a cup of tea in a hotel or cafe, the waiter brings us a cup of lukewarm water and a tea bag on the end of a piece of string. This is wrong, completely wrong, and in the interests of international harmony and understanding I shall now explain how to make a nice cup of tea, British style.

First, you put some water in a kettle and put it on the stove to boil. When it is nearly boiling, you pour a small amount of the hot water into a tea-pot, and swill it round, and pour it out again. This warms the tea pot. Then you put tea or tea bags into the tea pot. How much tea? Well, my mother used to say that you should put in one teabag for each person, plus one for the pot. So, if you are making tea for two people, you should put three teabags into the pot. Then you pour boiling water onto the tea, and let the tea stand for about three minutes. If you have milk in your tea, put the milk in the cup first and pour the tea onto the milk, not the other way round. After you have poured the tea, and offered sugar to those strange people who like sweet tea, you should pour some more boiling water into the tea pot. Why? Because the one thing which is nicer than a nice cup of tea is another nice cup of tea.

We use the word “nice” all the time in spoken English. “It’s nice weather today. Did you have a nice time on holiday? It was so nice of you to come and visit us. Did you meet Jane’s mother? She is such a nice person. Please sit down. I’ll make us a nice cup of tea.”

In fact, “nice” is probably the most overused word in the English language. We use it so much that it has become almost meaningless. It is a good idea to find other words to use instead of “nice”, if you can.

Did you notice something else about the song at the beginning of the podcast? I am talking about the names of different meals. “At half past eleven, my idea of heaven is a nice cup of tea,” sings Binnie. We have a special word in English for a snack in the middle of the morning, which you will hear sometimes, though it is now a bit old-fashioned – ‘elevenses’, because of course we have our snack at about eleven o’clock.

After elevenses, Binnie has her next cup of tea with her dinner. Until perhaps 30 years ago, most working people in Britain had their main meal in the middle of the day. They called it “dinner”, and many older people still do. Later in the day, people had a light meal at five or six o’clock and they called it “tea”. And, like Binnie, they had a cup of tea with their tea!

Today, most people have a light meal in the middle of the day – perhaps a sandwich and an apple, which they eat at their desk in the office. We call this meal “lunch”. People eat their main meal of the day in the evening, when they get home from work, and they call this meal “supper”. “Dinner” nowadays means a formal evening meal for a special occasion, where we dress up in smart clothes, and have nice food and wine and candles!

So, a lot has changed since Binnie Hale recorded her song seventy years ago. But a nice cup of tea is still a nice cup of tea! I am going to make one now.

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