The role of tea in World War II

With the recent announcement of a royal engagement, the world turns its attention to Britain once more (for some good news too this time!). And what can be more British than drinking tea? (Well, in truth, many things as drinking tea is also a big part of Chinese and Japanese culture.)

But the role tea plays in the life of the everyday Brit is something special. More than just something we drink in the morning or for elevenses, you could go as far to say that tea fueled the British Army during World War II.

What happened during the war?

Of course, it’s hard to summarise 6 horrendous years from history, but what I wanted to focus on was rationing. With limited supplies being available, pretty much all the countries participating in the war rationed food and drinks both for civilians and for the military. The typical weekly ration included:

  • 113g bacon or ham
  • 1 egg
  • 1.7l milk
  • 227g sugar
  • 57g loose tea – that’s about 23 cups per week!
  • 540g meat
  • 28g cheese
  • 55g preserves
  • 57g of butter
  • 113g of margarine
  • 57g lard
  • 85g sweets

Supplies of other things like fruit and veg were not rationed but they were limited.

For the soldiers the rations were:

  • 2.4kg meat
  • 230g bacon and ham
  • 380g butter and margarine
  • 110g cheese
  • 850g sugar
  • 110g tea
  • 230g preserves

As you can tell, the military portions were considerably larger but also necessary to sustain the physical strain of the war. Another interesting thing is that while most of life’s little luxuries disappeared, the story was slightly different with tea. 23 cups (or 55 for the military) doesn’t seem like a limitation at all if you ask me.

The British government buys most of the tea in the world in 1942

And by most of the tea, that means everything they could find from every country except Japan as they were the enemy. We’re likely only talking about black tea too, as that has been and remains the preferred type of tea in Britain.

Fun fact: some say the Government’s ‘shopping list’ had the following order of priority: bullets, tea, artillery shells, bombs and explosives! THAT’S how important tea was to the British army. And Churchill is said to have given sailors on ships the right to have unlimited tea.

But why? Well, apart from being a warm drink, very useful in the colder days and nights of the war, tea was both physically and psychologically comforting. It was one of the few things soldiers and civilians could keep enjoying as if nothing had ever happened, and it united people regardless of ethnicity and social status. It also kept the soldiers happy and sober at the same time. And we have proof of it in many pictures of people enjoying it; I found these ones particularly expressive:

In fact, it was so important to enjoy this comfort from home that tank soldiers would use the heat from firing bullets to boil the water in buckets to make tea. However, this involved going on the outside of the tank and many were killed in the ‘mission’. So it led to a special request for new tanks to have a kettle inside the cabin, a feature which remains included to this day.

Did tea help Britain win the war? I’d like to think it played a part.

Until next time,

Anca

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What tea should I try if I like a normal black tea?

I’ve ran into this situation a lot of times: most people just like their ‘normal’ cup of tea. Of course, everyone has a slightly different ‘normal’ especially when it comes to the amount of milk added. But generally, a ‘normal’ cup is an English Breakfast – a strong tea that you can personalise with milk and sugar (or not add any at all).

Yet sometimes, you can be forced into a situation where you’ll have to pick a different tea. Maybe they’re out of English Breakfast in the restaurant. Or maybe you’re visiting someone else’s office for a meeting and they show you their tea box full of options to choose from. And you get stuck.

No need for panic attacks, I’m here to help you out of a sticky situation. I’ve suggested some teas that will give you the same satisfaction based on what you love in your cuppa.

Teas that are similar in strength

Some teas have a strong body. You know when you add milk and it tastes good and it turns the perfect colour? Not grey, not white either? That’s a strong tea. If that’s what you like, I recommend you try anything labelled:

Assam (second flush if you have the choice)

Tippy Assam
Picture from Whittard’s tea collection. You can buy the tea here.

Keemun – well-regarded and flavoursome Chinese black tea

Lapsang Souchong – very smoky aroma (you can’t miss it, it’s a bit like a bonfire smell) but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea

Lapsang Souchong
Image from Seven Cups – online seller of Chinese teas

If you’re after that dark, malty taste of tea

Darjeeling – light black tea referred to by many as the “champagne of teas”

darjeeling fortnums
Image from Fortnum & Mason where you can buy it, and even find some from a single origin (called single estate).

Yunnan – light Chinese black tea with a beautiful dark golden liquor

yunnan-gold_infusion_gallery
The picture of this beautiful Yunnan is from JING Tea. The golden loose leaves look great too!

Russian Caravan – a slightly smoky black tea blend, though the ‘bonfire’ is not as potent as it is for Lapsang

Earl Grey – a light blend of black tea with bergamot (another one which divides people)

For the caffeine kick

Any of the teas above will give you caffeine, but if you really want to buzz with energy, I recommend trying something different from black tea.

A darker Oolong will be the easiest choice without stepping out of your comfort zone. Something like Dong Ding Oolong or the Iron Goddess of Mercy (how do they come up with these names? Haha!) should do the trick.

iron-goddess-of-mercy
Image from the Tea Palace where you can get this tea at a good price.

Alternatively, white tea has the most amount of caffeine because it’s the least processed, but it’s also the most delicate in flavour which means some of you will find it bland.

If you like mint, try the unique combination of a fresh taste with caffeine in Morrocan Mint – a combination of Gunpowder and spearmint.

moroccan mint fortnums
Image from Fortnum & Mason’s Moroccan Mint product page. Notice the tightly rolled green tea against the mint leaves!

There’s no need to be stressed anymore when faced with a choice other than your ‘usual’. Or perhaps you’ve been inspired to try something new? Either way, let me know how it goes.

Until next time,

Anca

 

What’s in an English Breakfast tea?

When I used to work for Whittard, many years ago, the store was always buzzing with tourists looking to bring the delights of Britain back to their countries. It also helped that I live in the beautiful and historical Cotswold area, with the spires and colleges of Oxford attracting those who want to visit the top-ranked university in Britain and among the oldest in the world.

Of course, tea plays a major part in tourist retail along with magnets and flags and other paraphernalia, but what says ‘I’ve been to England’ better than a box of English Breakfast? And it’s not just the name of the tea that has its appeal, English Breakfast is also the drink of choice for the natives – whether it’s called that or ‘everyday tea’ or under the respective brand names like PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea, etc. It’s all the same blend and it definitely doesn’t grow in Yorkshire!

A recipe with different ingredients

You see, what many people don’t realise is that while we all have our favourite brand and type of tea we prefer, producing that flavour every time is not quite as easy as making cake. You don’t just add the same ingredients in the same order and quantities and get the same result every time. And that’s because the ingredients are never the same.

If any of you are budding or keen gardeners, you’ll know that you can’t guarantee a plant to yield the exact same crop every year. That’s true for tea as well. The climate, rainfall, soil, general weather conditions and time of picking affect the taste of the leaves to a great extent. Through processing after plucking, you can still control what type of tea you obtain but a lot of factors are out of your control as a tea producer.

Tea blending – a craft like no other

What happens is that every company will have a taste they are aiming to achieve. They have a rough idea of the ‘ingredients’ that should go in, called a ‘blend’ in the tea world. For English Breakfast tea, that blend is generally a mix of Assam, Kenyan and Ceylon teas, but the exact proportions will vary with each company. The reason why these teas have been chosen to create such a popular and delicious blend are:

  1. Assam for strength – giving us the kick of caffeine with a strong body we crave in the morning
  2. Kenyan for colour – that dark golden brown which gets us out of bed
  3. Ceylon for flavour – that’s not to say that the other teas don’t taste nice but Ceylon, a tea from Sri Lanka, has a really special flavour among the black teas

As each batch of leaves that is bought is different, master blenders in each company will then make many variations of the same recipe with modified quantities of these three teas to match the previous batch they had made. Which was made to match the one before, and so on, to obtain a consistent taste. Master blenders will make even as many as 50 different blends, so you can imagine they have quite a sophisticated pallete to be able to differentiate each one.

All to bring us the comforting taste of our favourite cuppa.

Not all people want that though, much like wine, some tea drinkers prefer to taste the differences in seasonality and yields year after year much like with wine. But to do that, you need to drink single estate teas, which I will talk about in my next post.

Time to put the kettle on,

Anca

Tea review: Fortnum & Mason’s Afternoon Blend

In honour of Afternoon Tea this week, I’ve decided to review a classic choice for this joyous occasion: the eponymous Afternoon Blend. Many tea merchants will have a variant of this, including Whittard and Twinings, but I have chosen Fortnum & Mason’s blend as it was recently given to me as gift and I like to call Fortnum & Mason The Mothership so I’m probably a bit biased.

If you’re looking for an easy choice to go with your Afternoon Tea this week, or simply need a pick-me-up without the heavy body and strength of a regular English Breakfast, this is your tea. And while you’re at it, why not read more about the Afternoon Tea tradition?

Dry leaves: the aromas of the leaves have that characteristically strong earthy smell of a black tea, with notes of dried tobacco on this particular blend. As with many black teas for general consumption (as opposed to the grand crus and single estate varieties), the leaves are cut quite small to produce a full-bodied liquor.

IMG_2236

Water temperature: 100 degrees Celsius

Amount: one teaspoon or 3-4 grams per cup

Brewing time: 3-5 minutes. It might sound like a lot if you normally use teabags, but this time will give the tea leaves the chance to absorb the water and infuse it.

Wet leaves: the infusion process reveals a much lighter aroma to the leaves, which are now light woody, a bit like balsa wood, rather than earthy. The leaves have now also expanded and you can notice their size a bit better, which is the sign of a good quality loose leaf tea.

img_2237.jpg

Brew: those adverse to change will be happy to know that the tea tastes a bit like your regular cuppa without the strength, which is why I would suggest not adding milk to it because it won’t hold the taste very well. It’s mouth-filing but smooth, making it a good match and a versatile companion to the sweetness and variety of afternoon tea cakes.

IMG_2239

Ready to try it?

My best recommendation would be to go to Fortnum & Mason and enjoy their full Afternoon Tea package. Don’t worry, I’m in no way paid by them to say that, it’s simply the nicest Afternoon Tea I’ve ever had so it comes from the heart.

However, you can always buy the Afternoon Tea blend that I reviewed, priced at £10.95 for a lovely tin and 250g of tea (or about 80 cups!), bake a fresh batch of Mary Berry’s scones and enjoy a cream tea at home with cream and jam.

Thanks for reading!

Tea review: Fortnum & Mason’s black tea with lemon blend

If you’re an avid black tea drinker, that might be all you want to try and I understand that. But why not introduce a bit, a tiny bit, of variety with a citrus twist? Go on, at least while it’s summer! 

Fortnum & Mason has a lovely blend called black tea with lemon. It has a blend of light black teas from China and dried lemon peel from Sicily. Because the lemon is dried, you can even add a splash of milk without risk drinking a cup of curdle, but I prefer a splash of lemon juice instead. It reminds me of holidays in Italy where tea is drank with lemon and those yellow fruits are the most fragrant you’ll ever taste after bathing in the sun of the Mediterranean for the summer. Before I drift too far down memory lane, I’d like to add that black tea with lemon is a lovely companion to afternoon tea. Or if you don’t fancy the whole nine yards, its light and citrusy taste is a great complement to a slice of moist, creamy, chocolate cake or a rocky road, as it allows the sweet treat to be the star and acts like a light refreshment. 


Dry leaves
: malty like a regular black tea though light with a hint of citrus which combined, to me, smells like poppyseed. I actually mean that, not like when wine makers say you should get hints of chocolate in a wine and all you can smell is well…wine, or alcohol.


Water temperature: 100 degrees Celsius

Amount: one teaspoon or 3-4 grams per cup

Brewing time: 4-5 minutes.

Wet leaves: the maltiness is now gone, leaving space for a light scent of almost sweetly roasted notes. For a nature equivalent, it smells to me like a forest after a summer thunderstorm. 


Brew: the comforting familiarity of a regular cup of black tea with a softer touch. The lemon peel makes the liquor just a bit zingy ending every sip on a high without tasting sour or too much of lemon in any way. A very subtle brew indeed! And because it’s a light blend, it can work well as an iced tea too, served with slices of lemon and orange and a few sprigs of mint. 

Ready to try it?

I’ve used Fortnum & Mason’s black tea with lemon but as you can probably imagine, a few tea suppliers will have something similar. This is the one I use and like so I’m sharing with you my favourite but let me know what you think and what gems you find! 

At the time of writing, it’s priced at £7.25 for 120g and the famous F&M tin or you can buy it loose in their stores for slightly cheaper. A bargain!

Which teas can you add milk to?

Perhaps one of the reasons why tea and coffee are such popular drinks is that they are a blank canvas. You can have them hot or cold (try my recipe for a refreshing ice tea), with a little milk, a lot or no milk at all, frothed or not, with one, two or however many spoons of sugar you prefer, or perhaps you’re the special syrup type of drinker.

One of the founders in the company I work for has a T-shirt with his tea preference. Many people get customised mugs with it. Everyone has their preference. My mum loves a vanilla latte. I, as you’ve probably guessed from the title, like my black tea with milk and no sugar. Though I like white tea too so I’ve been a bit cheeky there!

Milk first or last?

The habit of starting with milk comes from the time when Westerners first discovered the pleasure of drinking tea. They poured milk in first to prevent their fine bone china or porcelain from breaking when the boiling tea was added from the teapot. Times have changed though, many people now make tea directly in cups and mugs which are much stronger. And unless you know what you’re doing, you can ruin a good cup of tea by adding too much of the white stuff. I recommend adjusting the milk ratio after the tea is prepared.

Black tea but not all of it!

Now that you know there is more to tea than a builder’s brew, it’s time to introduce you to tea varieties. Depending on where the teas are grown and when they are picked, tea leaves have a certain aroma, flavour and stregth. They can be consumed as a standalone variety or in a blend – the way most people prefer them. Take the popular English Breakfast for example – it’s a blend of three varieties: Kenyan for colour, Assam for strength, body and maltiness and Ceylon for aroma and adding complexity to the flavour. It really does sound like a recipe for success, no wonder Queen Victoria loved it so much.

Out of those three, it’s the Assam that has a full enough body to hold the blend’s taste when milk is added. Otherwise you’d just taste a watered down version of milk. So, which teas and blends are suitable?

  • Add milk to: Breakfast blends like English Breakfast (also Irish, Melbourne, etc.), Assam, Keemun, Lapsang Souchong.
  • Don’t add milk to Darjeeling, Ceylon, Afternoon tea, Earl or Lady Grey.
Melbourne Breakfast from T2 with milk is one of my hubby’s favourite teas

​​​Rooibos or Redbush

If your personal preference is to stay off caffeine, you can still enjoy a milky tea. Try Rooibos or Redbush – a South African herbal tea that is made with the needles of a bush. It’s similar in colour and flavour to an English Breakfast (as similar as a herbal tea can be) and it holds its own well with a splash of milk.

Vanilla Rooibos Dragonfly Tea with milk

Matcha – the new health craze

A very popular drink with the health conscious at the moment, matcha is the powdered form of special green tea bushes, such as Gyokuro, from Japan that are grown shaded from the sun. Japanese green teas are generally really earthy, a bit like the taste of boiled spinach, and this one is no exception. The traditional way of preparing it is using a bamboo whisk to blend it with water. However, Westerners prefer to add it to smoothies and cakes for an antioxidant kick, or to mix it with frothed milk as an alternative to a latte. Because of its strong, bitter taste, it’s probably the only type of tea that I like to add honey or a lemony syrup to. I’ve never tried cooking with it before, but I’ll do some experiments and let you know!

That’s it! Don’t add milk to green, white, Oolong or other herbal teas as they won’t hold their flavour. Also, if you normally add lemon to your tea (a popular habit in Europe), avoid adding milk as well as you’ll end up with a curdled mess!

Until next time!

What is black tea anyway?

Last week, I talked about how all tea comes from the same plant: camellia sinensis (and its varieties). I got a bit excited sharing how tea is grown, how it’s plucked and when it’s harvested and ran out of time/space/your attention span to explain how we end up with black, green, white and oolong tea. As they are such distinct yet delicious varieties, I’ve decided to dedicate a post to each one. So here we are: black tea.

In order to obtain the dark brown liquor we all love so much, tea leaves go through four stages once they are plucked: withering, rolling, oxidation and firing.

Withering

Similar to the way your flowers or herbs wither in hot weather after they’re picked, leaves react in the same way. It’s a natural process that traditionally occurs by exposing tea leaves to sunlight; they’re arranged in thin layers on bamboo or wire trays so that every one of them can sunbathe in style! However, you can imagine that for large productions this is unfeasible, so the leaves are instead transferred to temperature controlled rooms and kept between 20-24 degrees Celsius, with good ventilation.

The leaves will be left to relax and wither for 18-30 hours depending on the climate.

withering tea leaves

Rolling

Now that the leaves have softened, they are more flexible so the rolling process can begin. This is done to break down the cells to release an enzyme which helps with oxidation. And, as you’ve probably guessed, the more you roll them, the quicker oxidation will happen. This can be done manually or mechanically and the length of time it’s performed depends on things like the leaf quality, the time of the year, the temperature and the climate.

rolling tea leaves

This stage also determines the body of the cup – gently rolled leaves produce a light tea, whereas vigorously rolled leaves have a fuller, stronger body.

What is the body of a tea you ask? Well, the first sign will be the colour: light = pale and full = dark(er). Then it’s also the taste, light teas are generally mild, whereas full bodied teas have a much stronger, pronounced taste (this is your English Breakfast).

Oxidation

If withering was necessary to remove the water from the tea leaves, one of the crucial points with oxidation is that the humidity needs to be maintained between 90-95%. The leaves are again spread so they can all get the same treatment and the enzymes start to change the chemical composition, turning them the familiar dark red/brown colour.

The temperature also needs to be closely monitored as if it drops below 20%, the oxidation slows down or stops, and if it goes about 22% the leaves are ‘burned’.

oxidation tea leaves

Firing

It’s not actually as harsh as it sounds! I’d probably call it baking but ‘firing’ is the official term. This is done by exposing the leaves to temperatures of about 90 degrees Celsius for around 20 minutes which will both dry out the moisture left and kill the enzymes to stop oxidation. Tea manufacturers have to be careful with this process because if they don’t run it for long enough, the leaves could become mouldy. And if they run it for too long, the resulting brew will lack flavour. The leaves should have about 5% water left in them for a decent cuppa!

So, what do you think? Once I found out all of this years ago, I couldn’t look at a cup of tea in the same way! And wait until you discover how the green, white and oolong teas are formed.

Until next time!