by John Hartley
I have for many years been a counsellor or host for Japanese students who attend our University of Warwick here in Coventry. It has to be said that most are young ladies aged around 24-28 years old. They have all, in my experience, done their research on English culture and go out of their way to benefit from the apparent pleasure of being involved. Most, if not all, have heard of the custom of afternoon tea. This in no way is similar to your Japanese Green Tea ceremony.
In 1840 the Duchess of Bedford is said to have relieved her “sinking feeling” by enjoying
tea and light refreshments in the middle of the afternoon. She invited friends to join her and this made it into a social occasion. Her friends copied her idea so that the concept of afternoon tea was born. Generally the refreshment of tea was enhanced by thinly cut bread which was buttered and contained equally thinly cut cucumber slices. Perhaps these sandwiches with the crusts cut off would be followed by small cup cakes. All served on a tiered cake stand. Today guests at some of the large London hotels (the Ritz is the favourite) will be offered afternoon tea at around £40 per head accompanied by appropriate piano music. I am not sure that too many students can afford this!
Going back to 1657 when tea was first introduced into Britain it was found to be bitter to the taste but aromatic on the nose. The tea shrub with its fragrant white flowers was extensively cultivated in China, Japan, India and Ceylon. It took on average in the 17th century for a ship to take 12-15 months to sail back to England from the Orient. Consequently tea was a rare and expensive commodity and only consumed by the aristocracy. Tea leaves were kept in a tea caddy which would be locked and only the mistress of the house would have the key. Snobbishness began to surround tea drinking. This became a kind of ritual and young ladies were taught how to pour out correctly from tea pots as porcelain tea sets were manufactured and acquired by English families. Tea cups in the early days did not have handles so they were held at the brim when drinking to avoid burning the hands. This is how holding the cup with the little finger stuck out began and was to become a style in certain social circles. The 17th century saw a surge in the pottery industries to make fine china tea sets. Names like Royal Doulton, Spode, Wedgwood and Minton spring to mind. Eventually as shipping became more efficient the price of tea came down and was slowly introduced to the wider population.
There have been over the years many variations of the afternoon tea none more popular with Japanese students than the Cornish or Devon cream teas. This involves a scone first buttered and then spread with strawberry jam and finally topped with Cornish clotted cream. It is believed that this tasty delight goes back to the 11th century. Such cream teas are immensely popular in the summer season and it must be said that it is not only Japanese students that enjoy them! I believe that Mrs. Hideko Okamoto of Hiroshima has the recipe and her members of the Coventry Club have made and sold cream scones at the occasional festival. It is an accepted tradition in England that
“everything stops for tea”.
As a final note, many visitors to England will make a point of going to Greenwich in London. One of the show pieces there is the sailing clipper Cutty Sark. This was launched in 1869 especially to be used for the tea trade which was becoming highly competitive. It was important to bring the new season tea to London. There was a famous race in 1872 when two ships left Shanghai for London. Although the Cutty Sark lost - this was due to the use of an improvised rudder - the journey time was only 122 days. Thus we can see how with bigger ships with more sails available the price of tea became more affordable.
#138 Parkway Vol.26 No.4 October - December 2011