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Teatime is a longstanding tradition in British culture, dating back to the 19th century. Though it might conjure up outdated images of prim ladies sipping tea, read on to discover how this practice is being rediscovered and reinvigorated by youth and young entrepreneurs in Canada.

Text by: Margaret Godoy      
Country: Canada

My hands trembled as they poured the scalding hot liquid from the pot to the cup. I hovered anxiously, heart fluttering as I awaited the verdict, sure that a grievous, unspoken faux pas had been committed. What could be the cause of her extreme anxiousness, you ask? It was teatime, and I had been asked to prepare a pot for our esteemed visitors: British folk.

That doesn’t sound so bad, you say. No, I suppose it doesn’t. However, if you’re a little Canadian tea-lover like me, then serving tea to someone who hails from the UK is a bit like playing a piano piece you composed for Mozart, or showing off your dance moves to Michael Jackson.

All over the world, people drink tea; according to the authors of The Empire of Tea, it is the most widely consumed beverage on the earth after water. I first started drinking tea as a three year old, living in Pakistan with my parents. Our cook, Khadim, would boil up cauldrons of tea and then ladle it out throughout the day: sickly sweet and milky. I would tiptoe down into the kitchen in the early morning before anyone else had woken up, and clutch my tin mug of tea as I listened to the sounds of the household waking up.

Tea culture is the interaction of people with tea, and it differs from culture to culture. The Japanese hold complex tea ceremonies, while in the Middle East tea is the absolute focal point of all social gatherings, and in the Andean regions of South America both tourists and locals alike sip the coca tea that is believed to relieve symptoms of altitude sickness. The custom of teatime, however, is British through and through.

The popularity of tea in Britain can be traced back to when India was a part of the United Kingdom. Now, “tea” confusingly refers to both the beverage and the meal. Before teatime, there were only two meals in Britain: breakfast and dinner. Legend has it that Anna Maria Russell, lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, invented the afternoon meal of tea in the 19th century. Dinner was pushed back so late that she began to feel faint in the midday, and she found that a light snack and Darjeeling tea satisfied her hunger until dinner. While the exact details of this origin story are disputed, it is generally accepted that Anna Maria helped progress teatime to the point where it was the most important social event of the day.

While the tradition of teatime has a long and noble history, anyone who thinks that it is an outdated, obsolete custom kept alive only by little old ladies would be mistaken. British tea culture has made a comeback.

In late April of 2009, Stefanie Germanotta arrived at the BBC Radio 1 studios to perform on the Live Lounge segment. The artist, better known as Lady Gaga, was riding on the success of her recently released debut album “The Fame” and well on her way to becoming a pop queen and fashion icon. On this particular date she sat down at the keyboard, dressed in an impeccable white suit with a black and white striped hat, and played her hits one after another in stripped down acoustic versions. Her powerful voice and personality stole the show, but a delicate china teacup and saucer balanced on the edge of her keyboard caught the eye of the world. Her twisted afternoon tea look earned her the nickname, “The Mad Hatter

The teacup and saucer in question was Lady Gaga’s favourite set, one that she has been photographed with several times while traipsing about the streets, holding the teacup in hand as one might a small purse or mobile phone. It is just part of a movement in the UK and North America that is seeing trendy tearooms open up and hold their own against established coffee spots.

One of the most popular and successful tea shops in Canada at the moment is DAVIDsTEA, a storefront with a contemporary, edgy design. The concept came to founder David Segal after he asked himself the simple question: why should tea have to be serious? The first store opened on Toronto’s hip Queen Street in 2008, and there are now DAVIDsTEA locations all across Canada.

Over 115 types of tea are sold, including black tea, green tea, white tea, mate, pu’erh tea, oolong tea, rooibos, and many more. The official website boasts the slogan, “Tea for all! What ever your age, whatever your tastes, we have something for everyone and everyone is welcome.” The message they are sending is that tea is cool, tea is good, and it seems that message is being warmly received as younger people are taking a more active interest in enjoying the practice of teatime.

Nineteen year old Rita Cooper is a communications student from Ottawa. A long time lover of tea, she spent a recent Sunday having an afternoon tea party with a group of twenty girlfriends.

“It started with the Will and Kate royal wedding mania,” she explains. “We were talking about the fashion, which led to a discussion of fascinators, and the next time I saw my friends they had already planned a make-your-own-fascinator party!”

Naturally, the resulting splendor of their handcrafted fascinators required an event at which to wear them. They decided to make reservations for afternoon tea at Ottawa’s landmark hotel, the Château Laurier.

While Rita described the setting as being elegant and formal, she also remembers the other customers as being mostly women, but of all ages. Rita and her friends sat at two long tables, covered in white linen, with martini glasses full of fruit as center pieces. They were given the option of having the Classic Tea, or the Royal Tea (Rita opted for the Classic Tea). The tea was served first, poured through tea strainers customized to fit their cups. Then the food was brought out on beautiful three-tiered stands; a mixture of scones, sliced sandwiches, fruits tarts, and pound cake. “We were there for about three hours in total,” said Rita, and it’s clear that they were three hours of pure teatime heaven.

Teatime. For me, there is nothing quite as comforting as a cup of tea. The joy of tea drinking is comprised of one part delicious brew and one part physical comfort. As I hold my cup and inhale the steaming mix of herbs, there is a blissful moment where nothing else matters. As for the British visitors, they enjoyed the tea too.

Did you know?
- All types of tea come from the young leaves of the same tea plant, Camellia sinesis, which is native to China, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Malaysia
- There are four main types of tea: black, green, white, oolong
- Over 80% of North Americans drink tea
- Afternoon tea, or low tea, is traditionally held between 2 pm and 5 pm, while high tea is served at a more fashionable hour of between 5 pm and 7 pm.


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Easy Summary

All over the world, people drink tea. The authors of The Empire of Tea state that it is the most widely consumed beverage on the earth after water.

Tea culture is the interaction of people with tea, and it differs from culture to culture. The Japanese hold complex tea ceremonies, while in the Middle East tea is the focal point of all social gatherings. In the Andean regions of South America tourists and locals sip the coca tea that is believed to relieve symptoms of altitude sickness. The custom of tea time, however, is completely British.

The popularity of tea in Britain can be traced back to when India was a part of the United Kingdom. Now, “tea” confusingly refers to both the beverage and the meal. Before tea time, there were only two meals in Britain: breakfast and dinner. Anna Maria Russell, lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, invented the afternoon meal of tea in the 19th century. Dinner was pushed back so late that she began to feel faint in the midday, and she found that a light snack and Darjeeling tea satisfied her hunger until dinner.

The tradition of tea time has a long and noble history. But anyone who thinks that it is an outdated custom kept only by little old ladies is wrong. British tea culture has made a comeback.

 

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The timelessness of teatime

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