Halfway through the Dan Brown bestselling thriller The Da Vinci Code, protagonist Robert Langdon, on the run from French police, arrives in the middle of the night at the palatial home of British expatriate Sir Leigh Teabing and buzzes the intercom, hoping for temporary asylum. Teabing, roused from his sleep, decides to challenge Langdon to a British-themed quiz before granting him admission. After Langdon correctly guesses that he will be served tea (out of a choice of tea or coffee), Teabing continues:
“Milk or sugar?”
“Milk," Langdon said.
"Sugar?" Teabing made no reply.
Wait! Langdon now recalled the bitter beverage he had been served on his last visit and realized this question was a trick. "Lemon!" he declared. "Earl Grey with lemon."
While the preferences of this literary character may not represent the whole of the United Kingdom, the British definitely have strong opinions on their national beverage—how it should be brewed, how it should be served, and what should be served with it.
What is certainly not a matter of opinion is that every Brit seems to have his or her own preference on exactly how to make tea. In his essay, “A Nice Cup of Tea,” author George Orwell (1984) wrote, "Tea is one of the mainstays of civilization in this country and causes violent disputes over how it should be made."
Since Great Britain is still a monarchy, perhaps it makes sense to start with the royals—specifically the Royal Society of Chemistry, who released a document containing instructions on brewing what they claimed was “A Perfect Cup of Tea:”
Loose-leaf Assam tea
Fresh, chilled milk
Large ceramic mug
Fine mesh tea strainer
To Milk or Not To Milk?
The question of milk—not just whether to add it, but when—elicits vigorous debate. The Guardian jokes, “If anything is going to kick off another civil war in the UK, it is probably going to be this.” Apparently, science asserts that milk must be added to the cup first, then tea, to avoid the droplets of milk undergoing a process of denaturation that downgrades the quality of the cuppa. Nonsense, retorts the other half of the British population. If one adds milk first, how can one know exactly how much is wanted?
No cup of Earl Grey would be complete without a biscuit or two. Commonly called digestives, the Brits at least come to some semblance of agreement on the necessity of this cracker-cookie hybrid—tea may be a matter of opinion, but digestive biscuits are essential.