George Orwell wrote two good food/drink related essays, “In defense of English cooking,” (1945) and “A nice cup of tea” (1946). Both are short (they first appeared in newspapers), highly opinionated, and well worth reading.
You don’t have to live long in the UK to know that the Brits—or at least many Brits—take their tea seriously. I remember one complaining that he had been served “shamrock tea” (tea made from the equivalent of three leaves), and another telling me that he liked his tea “so strong that you could trot a mouse on it.”
In his weekly essay at Slate, Christopher Hitchens, who’s still going strong, weighs in with “How to make a decent cup of tea.” He pretty much concurs with Orwell but gets in a few (well deserved) swipes at how Americans proffer this beverage.
Hitchens recounts an incident in which John Lennon informs Yoko Ono that, when making tea with a tea bag, you must first fill the cup with hot water and only then add the tea bag. Hitch is appalled:
I simply hate to think of the harm that might result from this. It is already virtually impossible in the United States, unless you undertake the job yourself, to get a cup or pot of tea that tastes remotely as it ought to. It’s quite common to be served a cup or a pot of water, well off the boil, with the tea bags lying on an adjacent cold plate. Then comes the ridiculous business of pouring the tepid water, dunking the bag until some change in color occurs, and eventually finding some way of disposing of the resulting and dispiriting tampon surrogate. The drink itself is then best thrown away, though if swallowed, it will have about the same effect on morale as a reading of the memoirs of President James Earl Carter.
I can’t abide tea bags unless they contain herbal tea. When I must brew a single cup I use one of these infusers from Upton Tea company:
Yes, I know it’s not as good as leaves in a pot, but at least I can use decent loose tea.
A nice cup of tea without a biscuit or two is woefully lacking, like a pastrami sandwich without mustard. The combination of tea and biscuit is the subject of one of my favorite food-related sites: A Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down. Its strength is the presentation (and its ratings) of British biscuits (“cookies” to Americans) in all their glory. Orwell mentioned the superiority of British biscuits in his essay (my emphasis):
First of all, kippers, Yorkshire pudding, Devonshire cream, muffins and crumpets. Then a list of puddings that would be interminable if I gave it in full: I will pick out for special mention Christmas pudding, treacle tart and apple dumplings. Then an almost equally long list of cakes: for instance, dark plum cake (such as you used to get at Buzzard’s before the war), short-bread and saffron buns. Also innumerable kinds of biscuit, which exist, of course, elsewhere, but are generally admitted to be better and crisper in England.
When I visit the UK I cram down as many biscuits as I can; they really are better there. My favorites include Boasters, fig rolls, biscuits containing pieces of candied ginger, and Garibaldis, sometimes known as “squashed fly biscuits” for their flattened raisins:
McVities Boasters, containing raisins and big hunks of chocolate, are impossibly luxurious. Even I can’t eat more than a couple:
The combination of fig and flaky covering, as seen in America’s Fig Newton (named after Newton, Massachusetts) is inspired. But Brits do it better in their “fig rolls,” made by many companies. The pastry covering is better, and also thicker. Its a substantial biscuit. And some versions have the fig completely enclosed with pastry. Here’s a typical fig roll from the UK:
But my absolute favorite, the King of the Biscuit, is McVities chocolate digestive biscuits (dark chocolate, please). Oh, for four or five of these right now:
They’re ideal for dunking in coffee or tea, which softens the crunch a bit and slightly melts the chocolate.