When I came to London, I expected everyone to drink tea. It’s certainly a stereotype, complete with raised pinkies and gossiping over crumpets, but I was surprised at how little tea percolated into everyday English culture. Regardless, one quiet afternoon, five of us ventured off in search of a “traditional” tea experience.
The most affordable option was at a little shop called “Drink, Shop, Do” in Kings Cross. The place was small and quaint, but felt like some kind of wonderland. Everything was pastel. The furniture was vintage, and there were origami cranes and Christmas lights lining the ceiling. We each ordered tea and cake, which came on mismatched China dishes, and congratulated ourselves on such a traditional experience as we hoisted our teapots high.
We later learned that, despite our best efforts, we took the wrong approach to tea. A young man from Manchester informed us that, yes, though we took tea at the proper time, between two and five o’clock, we missed some key elements. And it wasn’t the raised pinkies or gossip, as I’d seen in the movies. He meant cucumber sandwiches, or scones with clotted cream, or something called egg mayonnaise. We also learned that we were supposed to drink Earl Grey tea, sans any cream or cute little sugar cubes. At the end of this conversation, our friend from Manchester said he’d only taken proper high tea twice in his life. Twice. Not on the daily.
Lesson learned? Although the English do drink tea, and although I did hear reference to those darn Americans dumping tea into the harbor more than once, the tea drinking culture in London isn’t actually that different than the States. That is to say, some people drink it while others prefer visiting Starbucks, or its local equivalents, Pret a Manger or Costa, for a latte. Some abstain from both.
It’s true that tea is a traditional, cultural meal served in England. Although we may not have abided by the “rules” of proper tea, it seems that most people living in London don’t, at least not on a regular basis. I’ll admit that I would love to taste a traditional high tea at some point, but for now, though, I’m quite satisfied with our atypical experience, nibbling on carrot cake and sipping rooibos tea.