The instinct which warns all good Englishmen when tea is ready immediately began to perform its silent duty. Even as Thomas set gate-leg table to earth there appeared, as if answering a cue, an elderly gentleman in stained tweeds and a hat he should have been ashamed of. Clarence, ninth earl of Emsworth, in person.
–Excerpt from ‘Summer Lightning’ by PG Wodehouse
Anyone familiar with Plum’s works will immediately connect with the scene unfolding before us – inhabitants of Blandings Castle gravitating towards a particular spot, in this case the shade of a large cedar, to engage in a time-honoured English tradition: the afternoon tea at 5 O’clock.
It is a ritual that had tickled Rene Goscinny so much that the master writer documented the rites in Asterix in Britain; according to this comic book, it all started when the venerable Gaulish druid Getafix prepared a magic potion with herbs from “barbarian lands”, and made the Britons imbibe it.
Prior to quaffing the druid’s brew – which we are told is tea leaves, presumably from China – Goscinny informs us that the English of yore drank only hot water, sipping it daintily from porcelain cups.
So addicted were they to warmed aqua that, precisely at 5 O’clock every afternoon, they threw down their arms in the middle of battle with the Romans and sat down socially for a cuppa.
It was only after they drank the “potion”, the Goscinny chronicles say, did they manage to rout the Roman legionaries.
The practice stuck on for good to become a sacred ritual, played out every afternoon in England for centuries ever since, as it did in Lord Emsworth’s castle at Blandings.
Modern historians, not being as knowledgeable, would have us believe otherwise. They discount Goscinny’s findings and ignore the role of Asterix, Getafix and other indomitable Gauls in introducing tea in Ole Blighty.
According to this school of thought, it was Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, who started it all in the 1840s.
Apparently, the long gap between luncheon – a light meal that came in vogue in the 18th century – and dinner left her and the rest of England peckish, and the Duchess began tucking into an afternoon snack of cakes and sandwiches with tea, preferably Darjeeling.
So satisfied was she with the new meal that she soon began calling her friends over for afternoon tea. It quickly established itself as a convivial repast in many middle and upper class households. Even Queen Victoria was her guest once.
The rest, they say, is history.
I do not buy it. I would rather stick to Goscinny’s theory, of how a long line of Britons queued up before Getafix’s cauldron as he ladled out the “magic potion” into their mugs and galvanized them into a Romans-beating force.
But if we do narrate the story of the Duchess of Bedford, we must also talk of something else she is credited with – the tea cosy, a fabric covering that is draped over teapots to keep the beverage warmer for a longer period of time.
According to an article in Countlan, a webzine dedicated to entertaining at home, several cultures and countries are tied to inventing the tea cosies.
However, it says “the object’s documented roots rest with the British”, and in his book A History of Hand Knitting, author Richard Butt says its first documented use is in 1867 – by the Duchess.
In India, it is said, the Singpho and the Khamti tribes from the Arunachal Pradesh area began consuming tea as far back as the 12th century.
In other words – if you do not subscribe to Goscinny’s views on the history of tea drinking in England – the Indians had started off before the English did.
The beverage, however, became popular nationally only after the English began commercial production in Assam in the 1820s.
By the time the Duchess of Bedford began networking over afternoon tea, it was being grown in Darjeeling too. Needless to say, the tea cosy too was introduced in India by the English.
There was another addition to India’s tea culture in colonial times. Though not technically a British custom, it was a meal that included tea, and known as “chota hazry”; it was alien to India before the advent of the English.
Cecilia Leong-Salobir, Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong, Australia, has addressed the issue in her book Food Culture in Colonial Asia: A Taste of Empire. According to her, “‘chota hazry’ has been variously translated as ‘little breakfast’, ‘early morning tea’ and ‘bed tea’.”
It was the first meal for Anglo-Indians, she writes, “consumed between five-thirty and six o’ clock and consisting of tea, boiled or poached eggs, toast and fruit”.
According to Hobson-Jobson, a glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, the meal was peculiar to the Bengal Presidency and known as “early tea” in Madras.
“There is one small meal… it is that commonly known in India by the Hindustani name of chota-haziri, and in our English colonies as ‘Early Tea,’…” Hobson-Jobson says, quoting from another study on colonial culture, The Tropical Resident at Home Letters by Edward Waring.
I read elsewhere the term is still prevalent in some boarding schools. I was intrigued because I had never heard it despite going to one in Kurseong, Darjeeling, in the 1970s.
So I decided to ask Charles Tresham, an Anglo-Burmese school alumnus, whose family was considered Anglo-Indian when they lived in Calcutta before emigrating to the UK.
“In school we used it to mean ‘small porridge’,” says the London-based Charles, who graduated from school exactly 20 years before I did. “At home it was ‘small breakfast’.”