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The practice of drinking tea

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

Let me begin by acknowledging all the coffee-drinkers out there!

Sometimes, it can appear that there are two camps: the tea-drinkers and the coffee-drinkers. But the sheer number of people who enjoy drinking both should put that distinction to rest. If any separation occurs, it is more in the reason why we consume the different beverages.

Coffee is primarily used socially, or as a pick-me-up when energy flags. But the purpose of having tea is far more varied. Which is why tea-drinking has occurred for an abundance of reasons in every single book I have written thus far.

First, we need to separate tea as a meal from tea as a beverage. In Britain, the main evening meal is sometimes referred to as tea. Afternoon tea might involve crustless cucumber sandwiches or scones with clotted cream. In South Africa, which has a strong British influence, it is common to “have tea” with friends, either in the morning or the afternoon, involving some sort of confection and, often, coffee!

Just as preparing coffee has become somewhat of a procedure with the grinding and percolating of beans, “taking tea” has an element of the ceremonial. In China and Japan, the tea ritual is impressively precise, from the wiping of the spoon to the holding of the cup, so much so that it has an artistic beauty to it. As a friend of mine once said, tea is more of “an event with props”.

Many years ago, I treated myself to the purchase of a glass teapot. The tea is kept warm in this pot, suspended over an (unsurprisingly-called) tea candle. It is perfect for having floral and fruit teas, becoming a centerpiece to the event, like a liquid bouquet. The most spectacular of these are handmade blooming flowers which consist of dried flowers and tea leaves shaped into spheres that open when immersed in warm water.

Such exquisite possibilities might suggest tea-drinking leans toward the feminine. But this thought is negated by the millions of men who consume tea daily in Asia, and throughout the British commonwealth. For example, in Turkey, after the morning call to prayer, men will stop on the way to work for a small glass of hot tea sweetened with beet sugar. And it will be the first glass of several for the day.

So, besides the ceremony of ancient cultures, there is the more common ritual of starting/ending the day with a “cuppa”, sometimes with a rusk (dry, hard biscuit in South Africa) or a biccie (cookie in the UK). If you are an avid tea-drinker like myself, there really is no time of day that could not benefit from “a spot of tea”. In my book, First Impressions, Mr. Trenton seems to share my opinion:

Ultimately, Edward Trenton had good reason to feel satisfied with his current situation. The fact that his daughter might need to be somewhat reshaped by the realities of married life was not a concern. Her display of independence this morning would soon be forgotten as she was absorbed into the Viscount’s household. He leaned back in his chair and smiled up to his wife.

“Margaret, I do believe I might enjoy a pot of tea right about now.”

Tea, just like coffee, can offer a boost to the spirits. But, unlike its counterpart, tea also provides calm and relaxation. It soothes in times of stress. In Armor of God: The Prophecy,

Spatha could not get a sensible word from the child and decided that the heat of a fire would help drive out the shock. So he had set about collecting wood and getting the flames going nicely, all the while expecting Vahan to make his appearance and preparing himself mentally for that confrontation. He was mildly surprised that it didn’t happen, but his deep concern at Evander’s condition took up most of his attention. He wished they were near a village where he might beg some sweet tea to settle the lad’s jangled nerves.

Tea can go one step further, acting as an herbal remedy for a wide number of ailments. For example, most South Africans will reach for rooibos when dealing with a bad tummy. During convalescence, many view rooibos with the same attitude as other cultures do chicken soup. Easy to make, and soothing as a warm drink, herbal teas make for simple, accessible treatments, especially for those who seek less formal medication.

Before Western medicine became the go-to option, teas and tinctures were the norm, which is why, in Armor of God: Rest in the Lord (the fourth and final book in the series), that is exactly what a sickly child is longing for:

Little Momig looked very pale, even more so than usual. His breath was raspy, and his brothers were very concerned. Their mother would normally have prepared an herbal tea for her youngest and have him rest. But the agitation of the uncomfortable journey, wrists tied to a pommel while the horse beneath him galloped and walked in turns, and the absence of the healing knowledge and care of his mother, meant that 12-year-old Momig was struggling to recover.

On the lighter side, tea, as with any other refreshment, is inherently social. Offering tea is a sign of hospitality. Of equal importance, though, is whom we choose to offer such refreshment to. In the Regency period of Jane Austen, whom one shared tea with was an indication of the extent of their welcome, and a subtle establishment of social standing. We see this often in First Impressions, no less so when Miss Sangford arrives unannounced:

“We hope you do not mind us dropping in on you without an appointment.” She spoke with the sort of regal composure and slow blink of her eyelids that suggested nothing she did could be frowned upon. She continued without waiting for approval or reassurance.

“We were visiting my aunt and uncle, who live on the same lane, and thought it a perfect opportunity to welcome you to Munro. You must know that your engagement is the talk of the town and it vexes the ladies of society that Lord Howell has not held a dance to announce your arrival or brought you to the theater where we might have the pleasure of making your acquaintance.”

“I see,” Ellena answered, her tone sober and reserved after the easy conversation with Mr. Cole. “Well, you have found me. Shall I ring for tea?”

“That would be very kind. Do you see, Olivia? I told you she would not feel it an imposition.”

Finally, there is the use of tea as a distraction. We have, I imagine, all been in a position where we have munched on a cookie or sipped our tea in the absence of anything sensible to say. In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the morning tea hosted by Miss Darcy at Pemberley is a fine example of that. So, it is no surprise that, in A New Day (my second Regency novel), Mrs. Morecott regrets this option being unavailable to her:

Mrs. Morecott was growing a little red around the ears and took tremendous interest in the perfect fit of her gloves. In her own home she would, by now, have dealt swiftly with her husband, and this dialogue with Miss Garrett would have been supplanted by tea or a walk in the garden. However, she was not mistress of this house and did not feel the same confidence in drawing her husband’s attention away until he was ready to be drawn.

Do you have a favorite “tea scene” from a book? Feel free to share it in the comments section. As for me, I’m off to make a cup…

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