My conglomeration of linens, crockery, cutlery and glassware for any attempt to recreate what dropping in on someone for a cup of tea meant, is quite limiting, but perhaps there’s enough to take your mind back or show what it was like before mugs. Tea was the British drink, anytime or all the time, the kettle was kept on the boil, in case visitors dropped in.
There was an art to making a cup of tea, between what we were taught at school and at home. It was important enough to take up a whole period of cookery lessons at school. For a start tea did not come in little teabags. In the average household, a packet of tea from the grocers was emptied into a tea caddy. The teapot was warmed first, it was unforgivable to even think about making tea in a cold pot so it was swirled round with boiling water out of the kettle first and discarded. A spoonful (or spoonfuls) of tea was put in the pot depending on how many it would be serving, the spoon for the tea I have is round and fairly flat. The pot filled with boiling water. It did have to be boiling to make a good cup of tea then it was left by the fire to brew. Traditionally milk goes in the cup first, it was a cup and saucer, not a mug and the tea poured through a strainer to reduce the number of tea leaves finding their way into the tea. Sugar added to taste and the tea elegantly sipped. The cups were usually small so you kept your guest happy by refilling the cup with fresh tea.
A neighbour or a close friend didn’t get such elegant treatment, that was meant for real visitors. Seldom would anyone leave without at least a cup of tea. Those worthy of having the best china displayed were also spoiled a little bit more with the use of fancy table covers and a ‘properly’ set table, whether it was a small side table or the dining table.
I have only three cups and saucers left from my grandma’s wedding china and no plates but with the plate there would have been a small serviette and a tea knife. Sugar if it was served as cubes, would have the sugar tongs or if it was during the war and sugar was rationed, then saccharines would have been put down in small dishes, accompanied by a tiny spoon, (as seen in the centre of the photo). Butter either curled or cut into small cubes, both methods were preferable. A nice touch to a tea table would be flowers.
There would be no need for butter and jam if only cakes and biscuits were being served but pancakes (dropped scones, Scotch pancakes) were quick to make and absolutely delicious straight off the girdle. There was a lot more home baking in the days of my parents and grandparents. There was no need to add artificial smells to your home when home baking and cooking were on the go!
Being a good hostess wasn’t as easy as it is now, there were no dishwashers, if there were, I doubt there would still be patterns on the dishes now. Cutlery, even EPNS still needed to be polished regularly as it all tarnished fairly quickly. You did that rather than being thought shameful at not being a good housekeeper. Women were proud to be housewives, even more so if they had the opportunity to show off their baking skills but it was also important to have a ‘nice table’.
I would very much like to host a ‘proper’ afternoon tea but my baking skills need to be polished up first. As for tea, although I don’t drink it, I do have a selection of loose leaf teas and no teabags. My tea drinking family assure me they are much better than teabags and don’t need milk or sugar to disguise the bitterness you get from everyday teas.
Tea actually doesn’t get much mention as being beneficial but it is, it’s a powerhouse of benefits. It’s antioxidants could help prevent a lot of serious illnesses, it may not be a miracle cure for any ailments but it’s usually what you reach for if you are tired, thirsty, needing energy restored and seems to offer some cosy comfort if your spirits are lagging a little. Perhaps that’s why it’s termed ‘The cup that cheers’.