I used to hate tea. Not just dislike it, not just not mind it, but actually, literally, hate it. The smell, the taste, the feel of a teabag… It was almost a phobia.
A terrible phobia. A debilitating phobia. In fact, there was no ‘almost’ about it. I’d be quite happy, minding my own business, walking down the street, or sitting in a café, when suddenly, that tangy, spicy scent – the smell that made my taste buds shrivel up and try to hide – would hit me. Wafting its way past as a waitress carried a cup of the beige stuff to a nearby table, it seemed to leap out of the mug and assault my senses, slapping me round the face with its jolly old self. Jogging by me in a frantic commute, its consumer blissfully unaware that their beverage of choice had made me feel really rather unwell, it slowed down as it went by, wanting me to get a good dose of its goodness.
And it’s a strange thing, this ‘teaphobia’. Someone who is afraid of spiders gets sympathy, gets people offering to save them from the hairy little beasts. A person afraid of the dark is allowed to sleep with the light on. Anyone afraid of heights wouldn’t be expected to work up a ladder.
But I received no sympathy. Odd looks, disbelieving sniggers, shakes of the head, yes, I got those. And I was not excused from being in the same room as tea – I could not run off and hope that it was gone when I got back. I had to stay or risk being thought of as a fool. I had to listen to friends, family, colleagues slurping their way through never-ending cuppas. I had to watch them licking their lips and sighing in satisfaction. I had to, on occasion, tidy up the remains of their crumb encrusted mugs, the biscuits they had dunked leaving behind remnants that floated in the cold, brown puddle at the bottom of the teacup.
Disgusting. Isn’t it?
Or was it just me?
It felt that way.
When visiting family, all great tea drinkers, I would, of course, be offered a drink when I arrived. “Cuppa?”
I steeled myself. “No, thank you. Coffee would be great. Or something cold.”
“What? No tea?”
Every time. Every time I saw the confusion in their eyes, the worry coursing through their minds. They wondered why I was so strange. They wondered what was wrong with me.
What was wrong with me? Tea was my birthright, surely. I’m British. I should have been sipping tea until the cows came home, dunking Digestives and munching macaroons. I should have enjoyed cradling a hot mug as I sat and listened to the radio. Or gossiping through a mouthful of the stuff in the hairdresser’s. My friends had been weened on tea, had drunk it from bottles and beakers and sippy cups since they were tiny. They loved it. It reminded them of snuggling with their mothers at story time. It reminded them of feeling unwell and dozing on the sofa.
It was a part of them.
It was a part of us. Keep calm and have a cup of tea. It was – and is – the solver of all ills, and fixer of all failings.
I shouldn’t have been trying to get away from it at any given opportunity.
But I did. And so, feeling decidedly unpatriotic and strangely alone, I carried on through life drinking coffee and cola and trying my best not to come into contact with tea.
Something changed, though.
My husband bought me a present.
Now, at this stage I had sailed through four years of dating followed by three years of marriage without the dread ‘T’ word causing too many issues.
“I don’t really like tea,” I had said when he had offered to make me a cup the first time I had visited his house. “I’d rather have a Coke.”
He didn’t have Coke, so I settled on lemonade. And that was it. All those years later, I was still drinking lemonade in preference to tea, and Coke in preference to lemonade. I bypassed his family asking if I wanted a cuppa by offering to do the making, and thereby not sounding strange in front of them.
It was all working out rather well, and my odd little phobia was neatly tucked away in the drawer in my mind labelled Nothing To See Here.
But that present… I couldn’t get away from it then. He bought me tea at The Ritz. At. The. Ritz.
What a gift! How exciting! I was so impressed and stunned, in fact, that forgot about the tea part. At. The. Ritz. That’s all that mattered to me. I would have to find a suitable outfit – smart but not something that looked as though I was trying too hard. Nothing flouncy or flowery. A hat? Would I need a hat? Did I own a hat? So many questions, so little time to organise anything…
It was on the train to London that I started to wonder. Tea. It didn’t mean the afternoon meal. It couldn’t. The Ritz would call that ‘dinner’ and besides, this was booked for eleven o’clock in the morning.
Oh no! Tea meant tea! What was I going to do?
I started to panic. I probably even sweated a little. My husband, himself excited and pleased at the gift he had bought me, did not notice. Thank goodness. But my stomach was in knots and my throat was tight and all I could think about was how to not drink tea at The Ritz.
I didn’t think there was any way around it.
How could I ask for coffee? How could I ask for Coke? To not drink tea at The Ritz might even, as far as I knew, have been a capital offence. If I declined their kind offer, I might have been dragged off to the Tower, left there to rot until I apologised and had a nice cuppa with the Queen to prove how sorry I was.
And how could I possibly do that?
I don’t remember now whether there was even an option for choosing anything other than tea… I suppose there must have been, for form’s sake, but I wouldn’t imagine the waiter who served us had ever taken an order for anything else. His face was expectant, and he had appeared with such a silent suavity that he took me by surprise and I panicked.
The menu – a menu just for tea (and, yes, possibly other things, but nothing overly important) – was expansive. There were seventeen different types to choose from, ranging from the caffeine free Moroccan Mint, a fresh and light cup that soothes the senses, through Chun Mee, a carefully scented green tea, to the Ritz Royal English, a specially made blend only available at The Ritz, it takes the best of Kenyan, Assam and Ceylon.
But I didn’t know all of that.
As I said, I panicked.
And knowing nothing about tea, and having to choose something, I went for the only name that seemed familiar: Earl Grey.
Of course I’d heard of it. I’d never tasted it (I’d never wanted to), but it seemed the safest option. It was the most recognisable. It was harmless. Sort of. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to drink it, or pour it, and I would have to stop breathing since the room was full of the mingling aromas of lemon and mint and orange and rose petals. And, underneath all the clever, interesting, rather lovely smelling ingredients, there was tea.
Hang on a minute.
I was surrounded by the stuff.
It was being sipped and slurped all around me.
It was being enjoyed and savoured everywhere I looked.
I could smell it. I could almost taste it, the air was so full of tea. And I didn’t mind. Actually, it was rather pleasant. Actually, I quite liked it.
So when my lovely little teapot – made of bone china, so delicate and thin that I was worried I would break it just by touching it – arrived, full of Earl Grey, I felt ready. I would taste it. I would try it. I would see how I coped.
It didn’t look too bad when my husband poured it into my cup. It smelt good, and I gathered up some of the teeny tiny sandwiches (beef and horseradish sauce, salmon and cucumber) in a pile in front of me.
And, steeling myself, ready to run should I need to, I took a very little drink from my teacup.
Then I took a slightly larger one.
And another. And on and on and I had, unbelievably, finished the whole thing.
Not only that; I had enjoyed it.
I must have done, since I hadn’t yet touched my sandwiches.
I must have done, since I poured myself another cup.
I must have done, since I haven’t looked back.
I am now a tea drinker.
I am drinking a cup of tea (Earl Grey with just the smallest splash of milk) as I type this.
I tend to believe that my sudden about face was related to the occasion – romantic, special, possibly even once in a lifetime – and my surroundings – opulent, stunning, absolutely beautiful and so very British – and that strange thing that people do in relating smells and tastes to times and things.
When I drink tea, I am reminded of that day. I see again the chandeliers and the marble. I can hear the delicate tinkle twinkle of teaspoons on thin china. I can smell the heady mixture of tea and fruit and salmon sandwiches. And cake. Let’s not forget the cake…
Let’s never forget the cake.