Why Was the Hatter MAD?

Who doesn’t love the nonsensical story of a bored little girl, Alice in Wonderland?  This classic book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, written by Lewis Carroll (Charles L. Dodgson) in 1871, has been translated in over 100 languages, has never been out of print and from which 17 movies have been made, the first being filmed in 1903.

I’ve written about Alice before … to mark her 150th Anniversary.  Check out the link if you are interested in learning more.  This time, however, I’m more interested in the less-than-subtle character of The Mad Hatter. You have to admit Carroll’s characters are incredibly delightful and entertaining.  Each character is a vivid portrayal of the people in Charles Dodgson’s (Lewis Carroll) world.  As Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, etc. each wrote about people with whom they were familiar, interesting characters who were actually part of their lives. How could you not love the Queen of Hearts (Queen Victoria) or the Cheshire Cat?  Of course, the tea party wouldn’t be complete without the Dormouse and the March Hare.

My favorite, and apparently Tim Burton’s as well, is The Mad Hatter.  But my question is, “why was the Hatter mad?”  In the book, he was never referred to as The Mad Hatter.  He is referred to only as “The Hatter”.   It is certainly apparent, however, with his constant barrage of questions, reciting silly poetry and songs, darting in and out of seats at the never-ending tea party, that he is without a doubt, MAD as a HATTER.   Where did this catch phrase and this character come from?

After visiting a “living history” (their words, not mine) museum this past weekend, I learned that “hat manufacturers” from the 18th and 19th century were ‘mad’, with acute cases of dementia, tremors and the like.  It seems the chemicals used to cure the felt used in hat-making included mercurious nitrate.  And we all now know the dangers of being exposed to mercury.  Mercury poisoning from the prolonged exposure to the vapors of mercury causes uncontrollable muscular tremors, distorted vision and confused speech, not to mention hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms.  Dementia was a common ailment for Victorian-era hat makers.  Hence the term “mad as a hatter”.

Theophilus Carter – 1824-1904

Carroll knew one such interesting character by the name of Theophilus Carter, who, it is believed, could have been the inspiration for “the hatter”. Theo wasn’t actually a ‘hatter’ himself, but rather an upholsterer and furniture maker, and a very eccentric and flamboyant one at that.  Often seen standing at the door to his Oxford shop with his infamous top hat perched on the back of his head.  Could Theo have come in contact with mercury vapors while making and upholstering furniture?  Possibly.

How did the process for using mercury to cure felt begin?  It seems that it can be traced back to the Middle East where camel hair was used for the felt material from which fez hats are made. The demand for these hats was tremendous after Sultan Mahud made them fashionable and mandatory for his military.  It was discovered, quite by accident, that the felting process could be hurried up if the pelts were soaked with urine, camel urine to be specific.

19th Century Hat Making

The fashion for felt hats moved north into Europe and with it the manufacturing.  But, camel urine was unavailable.  It is believed that workmen in France, not having camels handy, used their own urine.  Interestingly, one workman in this particular French factory seemed to produce a consistently superior felt. This workman, it was discovered, was being treated for syphilis, with regular doses of a mercury compound.   The connection between the mercury in his urine and the improved fibers of the felt were made and thus began the widespread use of mercury nitrate in felt making.

As a result, mercury poisoning became endemic with hat makers.  Although the hatters were exposed to the mercury fumes in the making of the felt, the wearers were not.  The vapors would have dissipated long before the hat was worn. Needless to say, this process is now banned in the U.S. and Europe.  And now we know why “the hatter was MAD“.

~ ~ ~
“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round,
“lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw,
“lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.
I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be, said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

 

The March Hare and the Hatter put the Dormouse’s head in a teapot, by Sir John Tenniel.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

References:  Wikipedia, Corrosion Doctors, Alice in Wonderland, American Chemical Society,

The Great British Tea Break

What has happened to the great British tea break?  The “tea break” was just a mere 15 minutes, mid-morning and mid-afternoon, where all work stopped to allow workers to regroup, relax for a few moments, and share in a cuppa.  And it seems this lack of preserving traditions that were once very important is sadly happening all over the world.  In the States we’ve also done away with the once mandatory, twice-daily coffee break.  The lowly, but very important, tea break is just another British tradition that is slowly becoming extinct.  In today’s fast-paced, head-down, remote-access, work-at-home workplace, people, not only in Great Britain, but around the globe, just don’t have the time to stop and put the kettle on.

During the industrial revolution, a typical British laborer would start their day around 5 or 6 am. By mid-morning, a bit of fatigue would set in and employers realizing that their employees needed a bit of bolstering, would let their workers have a 15-minute break. Realizing that this “tea break” was a way of boosting productivity, they implemented a 15-minute afternoon break as well. Considering where most laborers worked – cold, drafty factories, warehouses and mines – coupled with England’s often damp and bone-chilling weather, you can understand how much a hot, hearty cuppa would be looked forward to.

For the better part of two hundred years, these 15-minute breaks where a worker could ‘have a sit down‘ with a hot cuppa and a biscuit, and share a story or two with a fellow co-worker, were an integral part of the workday.

The industrial revolution also brought with it ‘trade unions’.  Working conditions were, for the most part, so deplorable that people began to organize in an attempt to implement labor guidelines and safety measures, provide higher wages and benefits. Over time, however, the trade unions grew so large and powerful they became some of the biggest political forces in Great Britain.

In the 1970s, British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, aka “Iron Lady”, began to break up the stronghold these powerful trade unions had on the economy and political scene.  To many people, especially those who worked in heavy industry and the public sector, this was a devastating move.  Workers took to the streets, from the north to the south, and began to strike.  “Tea Breaks” became the battle cry.

During the strikes, people endured electricity shortages and trying to buy candles … three-day work weeks and not earning enough money to afford heat … baking your own bread because bakers were on strike … rat-infested piles of garbage lining the street … the army recruited to put out fires because firemen were striking.  It’s amazing the U.K. survived such turbulent times.  But through it all, there was the “tea break”.

The traditional ‘tea break’ was once upheld as an important social activity in the workplace, but no more.  A recent study in the U.K. of over 2,000 workers were asked about ‘tea breaks’ and, sadly, 76% responded they were to busy to take a proper break.  Stepping away from the desk or workstation for a short break has actually been shown to increase productivity in workers, not to mention the valuable social aspect and morale boost that comes from a good cuppa, shared with colleagues.

Tea improves concentration, mood, and energy, as well as relaxation.  According to research studies by Unilever, people who drank tea four times a day for six weeks were found to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  Their lead scientist, Suzanne Einother, said of these findings: “… they appear to confirm what many of us suspect; that the close to sacred ritual of the tea break can effectively boost your mood, which in turn can lead to other benefits such as improved problem solving.”

It seems to me that in this fast-paced, hurry-up world, we may have lost something important. Traditional tea breaks, or coffee breaks, seem to be a lost tradition as workers today tend to just  ‘grab and go’.  If only businesses and employees realized the benefits.  A short break every day can lead to a happier, healthier workforce. When I’m sitting at my desk, jotting down my thoughts, or in the kitchen whipping up something whether quick and easy, or intensely complicated, you can be sure there’s always a cuppa tea next to me.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
References:  Royal Voluntary Service, Washington Post, Wikipedia, BBC News, Daily Mail

TOAST

Have you wondered why I’ve named this blog ‘Tea, Toast and Travel‘?  Well the ‘tea’ seems fairly obvious as does the ‘travel’, but ‘toast’?  I’ve had that question asked more than once. For me ‘toast’ is a warm, crunchy accompaniment to a hot cuppa tea … slathered in creamy, salty butter and, most often, a thick, sweet, fruity jam.  As a child, whenever I was sick … cold, flu or just a belly ache … my Mother would make me “toast” which now epitomizes comfort food.  I also use ‘toast’ as a category for recipes that I feel pair well with a cuppa tea … whether hearty soups or quick and easy desserts.  And this blog is meant to be about me sharing what I enjoy, so “Tea, Toast and Travel” suits me to a ….. T.

Years ago, I mentioned to hubby that I would love to open a small restaurant called “TOAST” and just serve just that – ‘toast’.   High-quality, loose leaf teas would, of course, be served too, but it would be ‘toast’ with all kinds of specialty toppings from savory to sweet.  How about bacon, avocado and poached egg on toast … or a garlicky ricotta cheese and English peas spread with a hint of lemon … or a thick slab of roasted turkey breast smothered in pan roasted drippings (yes, I used to have that same lunch sitting at the Kresge’s counter with my grandmother) … or Nutella and banana slices, a sprinkle of pecans and topped with Marshmallow Fluff under the broiler all melted and gooey?  My ‘toast’ would not be thinly sliced, pre-packaged white bread. It would be crusty, thick slices of artisanal breads from sourdough to whole grains.

When I mentioned my idea to hubby little did I know I was a few years ahead of a trend.  Today it seems ‘toast’ has already become the latest fad among foodies.  There are restaurants named ‘TOAST’ in New York City, Los Angeles, Long Island, one in Michigan, another in Charleston, and there’s even one here locally. They’re all over the country and they are all individually owned … not a chain, each one with a different image and menu.  There’s even a point-of-sale system for restaurants called “toast”.

I know trends are short-lived, but how fun to ride the wave. We’ve survived the freeze-dried coffee era, the fondue dinner party fix, the ubiquitous seven-layer dip which appeared at every social gathering.  Then there were bagels:  breakfast bagels, pizza bagels, dessert bagels, bagel chips, bagel bits.  And, of course, thanks to Oprah, the never-ending parade of cupcakes.  From smoothies to sliders, mac ‘n cheese to short ribs, we now have ‘toast’.

The word ‘toast,’ in fact, comes from the Latin word tostum, meaning to scorch or burn.  It is believed that 5,000 years ago Egyptians used ‘toasting’ bread was a way of preserving it.  (Not quite sure how researchers have been able to determine that time line.) Romans also preserved bread by toasting it, and this continued to be spread throughout Europe.  The British really took to ‘toasting’ (what goes better with a cuppa?).  And, of course, anything that was popular in Europe found its way to the Americas.  Cutting slabs of bread and roasting them on an open fire sounds intoxicating and romantic to me.

Although its only been around for about 100 years, the most common household item is the electric toaster.  Doesn’t everyone have one?  The invention of the electric toaster in 1893 by a Scotsman was thought to be the greatest invention of all time, although sliced bread wasn’t invented until 1928.  I’m not sure how popular it was, having to lay your bread against the coils and and watch it, quickly taking the bread off before it burned.  It wasn’t until the 1920s when the electric toaster as we know it today was perfected, evolving into a two-slice, pop-up device with a timer.  And with the invention of pre-sliced bread, the world was changed forever.

As a child isn’t toast the first thing you learned to make?  Ask someone who may not know how to cook if they know how and you’ll probably hear “I can make toast”.  So now how do you feel about slicing bread, toasting it under some type of heat source, spreading your favorite topping on it and then sitting back and savoring its sweet, crunchy goodness?  Serve that up with a piping hot mug of tea, and I’m yours!


~ ~ ~ ~ ~
References:  Thoughtco, H2G2, Today I Found Out
_____________________________________________________________________________

The Tea Cup Story

I didn’t write this.  I’m not sure who did.  It’s just a lovely, inspirational story and I wanted to share it with you.

There was a couple who went to England to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. They both liked antiques and pottery, especially tea cups. While shopping in an antique shop, they spotted an exceptional tea cup and asked, “May we see that cup? We’ve never seen one quite so beautiful.” 

As the shopkeeper handed it to them, the tea cup suddenly spoke. “You don’t understand,” the tea cup said. “I have not
always been a tea cup. There was a time when I was just a lump of clay.  My master took me and rolled me, pounded and patted me, over and over and I yelled out, ‘Don’t do that. Leave me alone,’ but he only smiled and said, ‘Not yet!’ ‘Then, WHAM, I was placed on a spinning wheel and was spun around and around and around.  ‘Stop it!  I’m getting so dizzy! I’m going to be sick!,’ I screamed.  But the master only nodded and said quietly, ‘Not yet.’

He spun me and poked and prodded and bent me out of shape to suit himself.  Then he put me in the oven. I never felt such heat. I yelled and knocked and pounded at the door.  ‘Help! Get me out of here!’ I could see him through the opening and I could read his lips as he shook his head from side to side, ‘Not yet’.

When I thought I couldn’t bear it another minute, the door opened. He carefully took me out and put me on the shelf, and I began to cool.  Oh, that felt so good!  Ah, this is much better, I thought.  But, after I cooled, he picked me up and brushed and painted me all over.  The fumes were horrible.  I thought I would gag. ‘Oh, please, stop it, stop it!’ I cried. He only shook his head and said, ‘Not yet!’

Then he put me back into the oven. Only it was not like the first one. This was twice as hot and I just knew I would suffocate. I begged and pleaded; I screamed and cried. I was convinced I would never make it. I was ready to give up.  But then the door opened and he took me out and placed me on the shelf, where I cooled and waited and waited and wondered, ‘What’s he going to do to me next?”

“After an hour, he handed me a mirror and said ‘Look at yourself.’ And I did. I said, ‘That’s not me; that couldn’t be me. I’m beautiful!’

Quietly he spoke, ‘I want you to remember, I know it hurt to be rolled and pounded and patted, but had I just left you alone, you’d have dried up. I know it made you dizzy to spin around on the wheel, but if I had stopped, you would have crumbled. I know it hurt and it was hot and disagreeable in the oven, but if I hadn’t put you there, you would have cracked. I know the fumes were bad when I brushed and painted you all over, but if I hadn’t done that, you never would have hardened. You would not have had any color in your life. If I hadn’t put you back in that second oven, you wouldn’t have survived for long because the hardness would not have held. Now you are a finished product. Now you are what I had in mind when I first began with you.”

The moral of the story:  God knows what He’s doing. He is the potter, and we are His clay. He will mold us, shape us, and expose us to just enough pressures so that we may be made into a flawless piece of work. So when life seems hard, and you are being pounded and patted and pushed almost beyond endurance; when your world seems to be spinning out of control, when you feel like you are in a fiery furnace, when life seems to “stink”, try this …. steep a cup of of your favorite tea in your prettiest teacup, and have a talk with the potter.

_____________________________________________________________________________

Chocolate – The Elixir of Love

Every February we are inundated with tv, internet, magazine and newspaper ads all selling the “passion” of chocolate, not to mention Facebook posts and blogs about this desirable substance (including this one). Roses have been pushed aside, Valentine cards are a thing of the past, and now chocolate has become the one true symbol of love and romance.  I need to find out not only how our obsession with chocolate began, but  where our love for chocolate started.

If you’ve read my blog “The John Company” then you know how “tea came to Great Britain.  It was Queen Elizabeth I who gave the East India Company a charter to go out in search of spices, competing with the Spanish and the Dutch.  Not only were spices necessary for preserving foods, spices made spoiled foods taste better. Spices were also used for embalming the dead, in religious practices, and as medicine.   Nutmeg was the most cherished of all spices because it was believed to be a miracle cure for the plague, which killed more than 35,000 people in London in 1603.

Over the 60 years during which they had a monopoly, The East India Company did bring back spices … pepper, cinnamon, clove, saffron, ginger and nutmeg … and they also brought back tea, coffee and cacao beans.  But it was actually the Spanish who are credited with introducing “Chocolate” to Europe.

Coffee House – 17th century

By the mid-17th century coffee houses were well established in London. These male-dominated “penny universities” were the social and political centers of London.  No woman would dare enter.  Although alcohol was not served, these places were not always ‘high brow’ destinations. In fact, King Charles II made an attempt to ban them altogether by 1675, but the public was so outraged, it was withdrawn.

Coffee was served, tea was just being introduced and alongside coffee and tea a new “hearty drink called “Chacolate” was starting to peak London’s curiosity.  In 1659 Thomas Rugg wrote in his Diurnal … “And theire ware also att this time a Turkish drink to bee sould, almost evry street, called coffee, and another kind of drink called tee, and also a drink called Chacolate, which was a very harty drink.”

Historians have been able to trace the origins of “Chocolate”, which is the result of roasting the ground beans of the cacao plant, back to as early as 1900 B.C. in Mexico, Central America and South America.  The Mayans and Aztecs used the pulverized seeds of the cacao plant, together with water and chili pepper, to brew ceremonial drinks.  They actually believed the cacao bean had divine and magical properties, which made it suitable for use in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death.   The word “Chocolate” comes from the Maya word “xocoatl” which means “bitter water”.

Cacao beans were also used in trade as currency.  In 1545 a list of Aztec prices illustrates the value of this precious bean:  1 good turkey hen for 100 cacao beans, 1 turkey egg for 3 cacao beans, 1 fully ripe avocado for 1 cacao bean, 1 large tomato for 1 cacao bean.   Unfortunately, according to a report at that time from Hernando de Oviedo y Valdez, cacao beans also bought:  a slave for 100 cacao beans. services of a prostitute for 10 cacao beans, and a rabbit dinner for 4 cacao beans.

It’s hard to know who to credit in the mid-16th century with introducing Spain to the cacao bean and the “hot beverage” that was made from it.  Was it the explorer Christopher Columbus, the conqueror Hernán Cortés, or was it the returning missionary Dominican friars?  Whoever it was certainly made an impression on the Spanish court.  This hot, bitter beverage made from the pressed blocks of dried cacao beans and hot water became a hit with Spanish aristocracy, but only after they began adding honey or sugar to it.  They found it most enjoyable when mixed with milk and flavorings such as vanilla, cinnamon, ground cloves, allspice and chilies.

“Chocolate” then migrated from Spain to France because of the marriage of Spanish King Philip IV’s daughter, Marie Thérèse, who, when she married French King Louis XIV, introduced these hot and hearty drinks to her French entourage.  King Louis XIV became so very fond of chocolate, he actually granted a monopoly for manufacturing this beverage to David Chaillou, a French importer.

Back in England, it was an entrepreneurial Frenchman now familiar with this wonderful elixir who, wanting to elevate the chocolate experience in London, removed it from the bawdy coffee house atmosphere and in 1657 opened the first “chocolate house”.  As always, the wealthy elite were the only ones who could afford this luxurious experience.  Tea was very dear, selling at approximately £26 per pound … which, when you consider the average income was less than £10 per year, was outrageous … and chocolate was just as expensive!

But where did the allure of chocolate as an aphrodisiac come from? The Spanish were quite observant in noticing that the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, drank copious amounts of this cacao bean beverage before he visited his harem.  Montezuma, is said to have drunk cold, thick chocolate from golden goblets daily, which were thrown away after only one use.  And when returning to Spain with the new elixir these Spanish explorers were quite eager to tout the aphrodisiac properties to the Spanish court.  The explorers also described this native “food of the gods” as a drug, able to treat a variety of ailments.

It is said that the French aristocrat, Marquis de Sade, became quite proficient in using chocolate to disguise potions.  The following is taken from a guest’s diary at an elaborate ball given in 1772 by the Marquis:

“Into the dessert he slipped chocolate pastilles so good that a number of people devoured them. There were lots of them, and no one failed to eat some, but he had mixed in some Spanish fly. The virtue of the medication is well known. It proved to be so potent that those who ate the pastilles began to burn with unchaste ardor and to carry on as if in the grip of the most amorous frenzy. The ball degenerated into one of those licentious orgies for which the Romans were renowned…”

Needless to say, the European’s love for chocolate grew, especially when they believed it to have nutritious, medicinal and properties able to increase their libido.  But, like tea, it remained a privilege of the rich.  In the 1700’s, the British obsession for chocolate (and sugar) grew to such proportions they established colonial plantations in tropical regions around the world just to grow cacao and sugar.  Sadly, we all know what happened when European diseases were transmitted into these countries which, to the then privileged Europeans, didn’t stop them from going in search of cheap labor.

Chocolate was always a hot (or iced) drink until 1828 when Dutch chemist, Coenraad Johannes van Houten, invented a specialized hydraulic press  to squeeze the fatty cocoa butter from the roasted cacao beans, leaving behind a dry cake which could then be pulverized into a fine powder.  (We still see “Dutch process” as a way of branding cocoa today.)  This fine powder could be mixed with liquids, poured into molds and solidified into edible, easily digestible chocolate which paved the way for the solid chocolate we all know and love.  This also resulted in making chocolate affordable to everyone. And in 1830, J. S. Fry and Sons, a British chocolate maker, is credited with making the first solid, edible chocolate candy bar.

50 years later, J. S. Fry and Sons merged with another company you may have heard of … Cadbury.  In 1824 John Cadbury opened a grocery store in Birmingham, England.  In addition to groceries, he sold drinking chocolate, which he prepared himself using a pestle and mortar.  Van Houten’s 1828 invention allowed for a much more affordable and versatile product, enabling Cadbury to sell 16 flavors of drinking chocolate.  And when Daniel Peter from Switzerland puts the first milk chocolate on the market, the appeal for chocolate skyrocketed. In 1913 another enterprising Swiss, Jules Sechaud, introduced the process for filling chocolates.  We haven’t looked back since!

So how did we get from there to being the one true symbol of love and romance?  English philosopher, James Wadsworth, translated the Spanish works Treatise (1640), which poetically combined the descriptions of this new hot chocolate beverage with the promise that if you drank enough chocolate anyone would become “faire and amiable.”  Both England and France used this statement as a powerful marketing tool.

Cadbury’s Valentine’s Day Box

St. Valentine’s Day, as a romantic holiday, was well established by the 1840’s.  It first appeared in the writings of Chaucer during the medieval period in 1382 with knights giving roses to their maidens and serenading them with songs.  By the 1840s, the Victorian era of excess was well underway and they were indulging in chocolate, tea, Cupid and romance.  Richard Cadbury recognized this as a great marketing opportunity and designed an elaborately decorated box in which he would put their Cadbury chocolates.  From that moment on, Cupids and roses were put on heart-shaped boxes everywhere.

In 1907, the American chocolate company, Hershey, launched production of its revolutionary tear-dropped shaped “kisses,” (named because of the smooching noise made by the machines as the chocolate was manufactured). Let’s not forget from the earliest days of movies, chocolate has been an important cast member.  Jean Harlow’s seductive performance in the 1933 film Dinner at Eight linked chocolate and sexuality forever, as she suggestively nibbles her way through a giant box of chocolates.  And who will ever forget the classic episode of “I Love Lucy” when Lucy and Ethel worked on a chocolate factory assembly line?

Chocolate lovers are passionate about chocolate, but does chocolate really create passion? Scientists have isolated phenylethylamine (PEA) which is a stimulant found in chocolate (as well as many other foods), and also in the brain.  A minuscule amount of this stimulate is released at moments of emotional euphoria, which raises blood pressure and heart rate.  Although we have learned about the many antioxidant benefits of high-percentage cacao in chocolate, there really is no scientific proof that chocolate is an aphrodisiac.

Does any of this matter?  Not really, because who doesn’t love the luscious, pleasurable sensation of chocolate as it melts in your mouth? And, for me, a velvet-covered, heart-shaped box full of divine chocolates is the quintessential Valentine’s gift.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

References:  Wikipedia, Message to Eagle, Chocolate of the Month, Cornell University, History, Cadbury, Public Domain Review, Smithsonian,
_____________________________________________________________________________

The Culture Shift … Tea to Coffee

What is happening in Great Britain today?  Traditional tea rooms are on the decline while lattés, caramelattés, cappuchinos, mochachinos and espresso drinking cafés are on the upswing.  The new millenials would rather log on and slurp, than clink cups and sip.  Although people are living longer, older generation Brits just can’t seem to hold onto their dying traditions anymore.  The solid foundations are slipping away.  The special occasion “afternoon tea” may be as popular as ever, but the mid-morning, mid-day, early evening tea break is just about gone.

Starbucks Cafe
Now there appears to be a war between Caffé Nero, Starbucks and Costa.  Take away their signs and all the marketing materials, and quite honestly, they are impossible to tell apart.  No character.  No charm.  No unique identity.  They refer to themselves as “customer centric”?  What exactly does “customer centric” mean anyway?

They each use surveys to track the customer service experience.  Surveys from how the customers like the furniture, the music, the art, and most recently what was printed on the take-away cup.  What about a survey about how good the coffee or tea tastes?  I guess that’s no longer important.

costaWhen I go to one of these take-away cafes, I know I’m going to have to compromise on the quality of the tea that I’m about to order.  I love green tea, but I know it will be a teabag of questionable quality, steeped with water that is far too hot and, if I don’t tell them to please not put the teabag into the cup, it will definitely be oversteeped and bitter.  I will carry the cup, perhaps on a tray, back to a table, which may or may not be clean, slopping most of the tea over the top, only to find that there’s no chair available, and napkins are nowhere in sight.  (Sigh)

caffe neroAnd the media tells me everyone is so concerned about their calorie and sugar intake, yet many Brits now consume these beverages regularly.  Action on Sugar, which is a group of specialists concerned with sugar intake and its effects on health, analyzed 131 hot drinks and found Starbucks, Caffé Nero and Costa to be among the worst offenders.

At Starbucks a “White Chocolate Mocha Venti with Whipped Cream” has 18 teaspoons of sugar.  Now, if I’m ordering dessert at a restaurant, that might be okay, but … really … this is just a beverage?  All right, that might seem a bit extreme.  How about if we wanted one of their seasonal beverages, such as Starbuck’s seasonal Hot Mulled Fruit drinks?  Would you believe 25 TEASPOONS of sugar!   Or if you think a nice hot chai would warm you up, at Costa a Chai Latte has only 20 teaspoons of sugar.  ONLY 20 TEASPOONS!

Want to know how many teaspoons of sugar are in a steaming, hot cup of tea?  0  Oh, maybe I didn’t stress that enough …. 0!  If you want sugar, you can put it in yourself.  I dare you to add 20 teaspoons of sugar to your cuppa and see if you still want to drink it.

We might have to get into the cost of these highly-calorific beverages on another post, but, for now, just think of the calorie savings alone.  The lowly cup of tea has 0 fat and 0 calories.  You can still hold it in your hands.  It still warms you.  It tastes delicious.  It is very social.  What’s better than sharing a good pot of tea with friends?  And it costs pennies.

So c’mon Brits.  Don’t be like so many other countries and let your traditions slip away.  Does every shopping area need to look like every other shopping area and every café look like every other café?  Perhaps tearooms may not be the chic, savvy trend-setting places they once were, but what they always have provided is a hearty cuppa, for a reasonable cost, warming the hearts and hands of generations of Brits!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
References:  Independent, Nunwood, Action on Sugar, TEA & COFFEE magazine

_____________________________________________________________________________

Does the Answer Lie in the Leaves?

Last night I watched the first episode of Outlander.  Yes, I know, where have I been the past year? I’m not quite sure if I’m going to like the series or not, but I must admit there was one scene which caught my attention … Claire and the minister’s assistant sitting in the kitchen having tea and then reading the tea leaves left in Claire’s cup.

Tea leaf reading, or Tasseography (from the French tasse, for cup, and the Greek suffix graph, for writing), is the ancient art of predicting the future by reading images formed from the tea leaves left in the bottom of a teacup.  The origins are a bit unclear.  Was it the Chinese or was it Greek gypsies who saw the “future” in these images?  What is clear is that you must be a bit of a mystic or clairvoyant to accurately interpret these images.

By the 17th century, tea leaf reading had traveled, along with tea, up through Europe into Great Britain.  “Tossing the cup” as it was called in Victorian England had become a very popular parlor game, but in Scotland, it was taken a little more seriously.  One of the oldest books on the subject, TEA-CUP READING AND FORTUNE TELLING BY TEA LEAVES, was written anonymously by a Highland Scotsman.  From the book,  “… (reading tea leaves) is one of the most common forms of divination practised by the peasants of Scotland and by village fortune-tellers in all parts of this country.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the tea-leaf reading scene was included in the tv series.

Reading-Tea-Leaves

To read the tea leaves, you must first prepare a good pot of loose leaf tea.  No, you cannot use teabags. You must use loose leaf tea and let it steep in the pot without infusers or tea balls.   I love this passage from TEA-CUP READING“China tea, the original tea imported into this country and still the best for all purposes. Indian tea and the cheaper mixtures contain so much dust and so many fragments of twigs and stems as often to be quite useless for the purposes of divination, as they will not combine to form pictures, or symbols clearly to be discerned.”

Before serving, stir the tea in the teapot and then pour a cup.  You also must use a “proper” teacup with saucer – not a mug.  The inside of the teacup must be white to see the leaves clearly and have sloping sides. The person who drinks the tea and wants to know the future is the “seeker”.  The person who will read the leaves is, obviously, the “reader”.  The seeker is asked by the reader to concentrate on what question she wants answered, or what she wants to know.

After the seeker has finished the tea and left the dregs behind, the reader takes the cup in her left hand, and turns it counter-clockwise three times, swirling the dregs, and then turns the cup over onto the saucer.  After a moment or two, the reader picks up the cup to see what images have been made by the tea leaves left in the cup.  The interpretation of these symbols is, of course, based upon the talent and divining abilities of the reader.  He or she must be intuitive, focused and creative.  Seeing images in the tea leaves takes quite an imagination.

reading tea 2The reader begins reading from the rim down.  The rim signifies those events happening soonest, while the images closer to the bottom will be further in the future.  The tea leaves which settle closer to the cup’s handle suggest home and family.

Anchor:  a good sign, symbolizing prosperity.
Arrow:  a disagreeable letter coming from the direction it points to.
Bird:  a flying bird indicates good news; a resting bird symbolizes an end to a journey.
Boat:  an upcoming journey or a removal of something from the seeker’s life.
Circles:  money, gifts or presents are expected.
Clover:  a very lucky sign; happiness and prosperity.
Cross:  a sign of trouble and delay or even death.
Dog:  a begging dog indicates someone will ask for a favor; a sad dog represents an injustice.
Heart:  love and affection
Horse-shoe:  a lucky journey or success in marriage and choosing a partner.
Human:  people in a positive stance is a good sign; aggressive stance signifies evil.
Line:  a straight, unbroken line means good progress; a broken line challenges the journey.
Numbers:  must be looked at with other symbols; numbers could signify days of the week, time, or amounts.
Ring:  at the top, means offer of marriage; at the bottom means long engagement; if broken means engagement broken off
Snake:  spiteful enemies; bad luck; illness.
Square:  being boxed in, limited or oppressed.
Sun, Moon, Stars:  all signify happiness and success.
Turtle:  a slow but profitable journey.

If you are interested in learning about tea-leaf reading, there are many books and websites on the subject.  Tea-leaf reading teacups, with the symbols on the inside of the cup and on the saucers and an instruction booklet, are available for sale online and at book stores.  Great fun if you want to have a tea leaf reading party at home.

reading teaI’ve been to many tea rooms which offer Tasseography, as well as Tarot card reading, Palmestry and other forms of seeing into the future … all of which I find absolutely fascinating.  Whether I believe it or not certainly doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of, not only the tea, but the experience.  For a fun afternoon, I recommend visiting a tea room where they have Tasseographers and enjoying a little divination from the leaves.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
References:  Newfound Info, TEA CUP READING, The Daily Tea

The Willow Tea Room

A “must” visit during our trip to Glasgow was the world-famous Willow Tea Room.  I have to admit that I didn’t know much about the Willow then, just that I had to go.  What I did know was this tearoom was designed by one of the most talented architects of the time, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, in 1903 in the futuristic “Arts and Crafts” style.  What I didn’t know was the “back story” of how this tearoom, created by Kate Cranston and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, had become one of the most expensive and famous tearooms of Europe.

Born in 1849, Catherine, or Kate as she was known, was the daughter of George Cranston, a successful Glasgow baker.  George bought the then very popular hotel, the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway Chop House and Commercial Lodgings.  He renamed the hotel the Royal Horse, which then became known as Cranston’s Hotel and Dining Room.

 Glasgow at the turn of the century was riddled with problems … industries were closing, slums were prevalent, and overcrowding was a huge problem, followed by diseases like cholera and typhoid.  Social centers were male dominated pubs serving coffee and ale, where politics was always the conversation of the day.  Glasgow was also the center of the temperance movement and political tensions were high!

Stuart Cranston's TEA Spoon

Stuart Cranston’s TEA Spoon

Kate’s older brother, Stuart, following in his father’s footsteps, was quite the visionary and saw through all these problems.  One of his visions was how “tea” (up until now only afforded by the upper classes) could be an alternative to alcohol, afforded by all.  Stuart set out to and had become a successful importer of tea.  When customers would come into his shop, he would put the kettle on and offer them a sample.  From there he decided to create a place where both men and women together (which was unheard of at that time) could enjoy tea and perhaps light sandwiches in a simple, clean, safe, pub-free atmosphere.  This concept was so successful, he opened two more.

Now enjoying great success, Stuart went on to buy one of the first covered shopping malls in Europe, Glasgow’s Argyll Arcade.  Built in 1827, the Argyll Arcade housed many retailers and craft shops, but was beginning to be run down and in need of major repairs.  Cranston was very focused in what he wanted in this row of shops, from uniformity of shop front designs and styles, to the quality of goods to be sold, as well as a very strict code of conduct for shop owners … which still applies today.

Kate, following in the entrepreneurial spirit of her family, opened the Crown Luncheon Room in the Argyll Arcade.  Although Glasgow was ranked as one of the richest cities in Europe, it also suffered from some appalling social problems …  poverty, crime and disease.  Kate’s father and her brother had taught her well because Kate was a force to be dealt with … not only on quality of tea and food, but on service and cleanliness.  With the success of this luncheonette, Kate then opened Miss Cranston’s Tearoom in 1878 where she continued to place great emphasis on the details, from the decor and design, to her strict code on cleanliness, quality of food and service.

Glasgow, in an effort to raise money for the city and showcase what Glasgow had to offer, opened The International Exhibition of 1888 at Kelvingrove Park (which attracted over 5 million visitors).  Kate wanted to be able to offer exhibition goers a place where they could sit and enjoy a cuppa in a clean, safe and well organized atmosphere. She opened what is now a very popular concept, a “pop-up” tearoom.  Like her brother, Kate was becoming quite successful.

Catherine “Kate” Cranston

Kate was a bit eccentric at times, always defying social conventions. She dressed in Victorian crinolines, similar to what her mother might have worn, long after they had gone out of fashion.  She’d also be seen around town dressed in a grey suit and bowler hat.  However she dressed, she was a very astute business woman and although Kate married John Cochrane in 1892, she continued to be known as Miss Cranston of Miss Cranston’s Tearooms.

Charles Rennie Macintosh

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

 

After the success of her luncheonette and first tearoom, Kate opened a second, then a third and then in 1903, the one which was to become her most famous of all, on Sauchiehall Street.

As a prominent businesswoman, Kate had become very well known in the artist community. This is where she had met the young Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  Charles Rennie Mackintosh was born in Glasgow on June 7, 1868, one of eleven children.  From the age of 9 he studied art and design, then trained as an architect in a local practice.  At art school Mackintosh and his friend and colleague, Herbert MacNair, met sisters, Margaret and Frances MacDonald, also artists.  Margaret was later to become his wife and worked with Charles on many of Kate’s projects.

Frieze of woman in rose trellis.

Kate first employed Charles in 1896 to provide just a stencil for the walls of her first tearoom on Buchanan Street.  Mackintosh created a frieze depicting delicate elongated lines of female figures in pairs facing each other surrounded by roses.  Kate loved it.  She then gave Mackintosh more responsibility for the Argyll Street tearoom, where he created his first major piece of furniture, the elegant high-backed chair (now housed in the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery).  In 1900, working closely with Kate, Charles designed the ladies’ luncheon room for Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street tearoom.  Then came the two-year Sauchiehall Street project.

Mackintosh constructed a barricade around the building to protect his project, decorated with his classic stenciling and lettering, of course.  Nothing escaped Mackintosh’s attention. He and his wife, Margaret, designed everything from the furniture and menus, to the silverware and the waitresses’ uniforms.  Within this tall, white-washed four story building, Mackintosh created a casual tearoom for ladies on the first floor, with a tea gallery on the  mezzanine level above it.   On the second floor, he created a more exclusive ladies’ room, the Room de Luxe.

Stained Glass Mirror Wall

Stained Glass Mirror Wall

Overlooking the street, this room had white walls with a frieze of stained glass and mirrored glass, stained glass double doors (Mackintosh’s largest and most elaborate stained glass creation) and his signature high-backed chairs in silver with sofas upholstered in rich purple. The third floor was to be a men’s billiard and smoking room.  Sauchiehall Street was the “crown jewel” of tearooms.

Kate’s defiant bohemian attitude was frowned upon by the ‘old order’.   Her tearooms broke traditions.  They provided a fashionable destination for women who were dissatisfied with their lot … where women and men were invited to not only dine together, but to play cards, billiards and smoke.  She had created a place where, not only the elite could see and be seen, but where the artist community flourished.  She encouraged young artists to showcase their talents by using her tearooms as galleries.

Unfortunately, Kate’s husband, John, died suddenly in 1917 and Kate was no longer interested in the tearooms or in business in general.  She sold her tearooms and wore black for the rest of her life.  Kate developed dementia and became increasingly difficult to deal with.  She moved from her fashionable mansion to a hotel in the south side of Glasgow where she was looked after by a female companion until she died in April 1934.  Having had no children, when she died, Kate left two thirds of her £67,476 estate (20 times more than her brother Stuart) to the poor of Glasgow.

Willow Tearoom Today

Willow Tearoom Today

Never actually receiving true recognition for his work, Mackintosh left Scotland with the hopes of living in Austria, where his work was admired.  This was halted because of the outbreak of World War 1.   He and Margaret moved to Walberswick, England, where he was arrested as a spy, possibly because of the letters he received from his friends in Austria.  After being released they moved to London.

As happens with so many talented artists, Mackintosh wasn’t recognized as the pioneer of modern architecture until the 1960s with the renewed interest in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Movement.  It was only then that the art world recognized his talents.  Charles Rennie Mackintosh died from cancer in London in 1928 – destitute.

Miss Cranston’s Tearooms had become the places to see and be seen for Glasgow society and continued to be for many years.  The partnership between Kate Cranston and Charles Rennie Mackintosh lasted for 20 years, the most important being the tearoom on Sauchiehall Street … now known as the Willow Tearoom.  Today Charles Rennie Mackintosh is studied and celebrated around the world.  Did I know any of this when we visited the Willow?  Absolutely not! But it doesn’t take long when approaching the building to realize you’ve come upon a tearoom unlike any other.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
References:  Wikipedia, Undiscovered Scotland, Argyll Arcade, BBC, Willow Tearooms, BBC HistoryCRMSociety,

A Perfect Cuppa

Yes, I know, everyone knows how to make a cup of tea.  Right?  Wrong!  I am simply amazed at how many people make tea BADLY.  The water is generally not hot enough, or too hot.  If they use a teabag, it’s left in the cup or pot FOREVER!  And these are the very same people who would never think of serving a badly prepared cup of coffee.  A well made cup of tea is delicious. Please don’t offer me a tepid cup with a teabag hanging out.  If you do, of course I will accept, but don’t be offended if I don’t drink it.

HEAT THE WATER
Get a tea kettle or a saucepan, fill it with as much water as you think you will need for the pot or cup you are making. DON’T use water that’s been sitting in the kettle most of the day.  The oxygen has dissipated and now it’s flat.  Use freshly drawn water from the tap. Bottled water is not necessary.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You don’t need any fancy appliance.  By all means, if you have an electric kettle, use it, but if not, put the kettle or a saucepan on the stove.  Please do not use a microwave.  It’s just not possible to know what the temperature of the water is when using a microwave oven.  And, if the water gets too hot, there is a chance the cup will explode. Yes, it does happen!

WATER TEMPERATURE
The temperature you heat the water to is very important.  If you use boiling water (210°) for green tea, you will stew the leaves and it will be bitter.  If you use water that’s under the boil (180°) for black tea, it will be flat and insipid.   When making black tea (English Breakfast, Earl Grey, etc.), bring the water to a rolling boil.   When making green tea (Jasmine, flavored or unflavored greens), bring the water to a soft boil and let it cool for a minute or two before pouring over the tea.  It’s not complicated.

POT OR NO POT
Yes, I use a teapot every time I make tea.  Do you have to use a teapot?  No.  But I truly believe it adds to the ceremony and enjoyment and taste.  Using a teapot doesn’t mean you need to get Grandma’s old 6-cup porcelain pot from the back of the cupboard.  Teapots come in all sizes and styles.  In the morning I use a three-cup ceramic pot, perfect for making two large mugs of tea.   Later in the day, I use my two-cup glass teapot, for an afternoon pick-me-up.

LOOSE OR TEA BAG
Do you drink instant coffee?  No.  Then why would you use a teabag, which is nothing more than instant tea?  Yes, teabag offerings have become much better recently.  This is only because the large tea companies were losing market share as consumers started buying more and more loose leaf tea.  As a result, these large tea companies had to step up their game to compete with the loose leaf tea market.  Certainly you can use a tea bag if you’d like, but given the choice use good quality loose leaf.  Don’t you deserve it?

HOW MUCH TEA TO USE
 Use one teaspoon of tea for each 8 oz. cup.  An 8 oz. measuring cup is not the same as a teacup. Teacups are usually 5 oz.  Mugs are usually 12 to 14 oz.  All the more reason to use a teapot for accurate measurements.  A three-cup teapot uses three teaspoons of tea.  What is the capacity of your teapot?  Just get a measuring cup and find out.

Green teas and white teas are lighter in weight than black teas.  You may want to use a bit more green or white teas than a teaspoon.  Black teas are heavier.  You must want to use just a bit less than a teaspoon.  Your taste will ultimately determine how much to use.

Then put the tea into an infuser or directly into your teapot.  Pour the boiling water (if it’s black tea – cooler than boiling if it’s green tea) over the tea.  Cover and let it steep.

TIMING – HOW LONG TO STEEP
This is also a critical point.  You need to steep the tea long enough for the flavor to be extracted from the leaves.  30 seconds is plenty of time for a tea bag, but certainly not enough for loose leaf tea.  For black tea, steep for 3 to 5 minutes.  For green tea and white teas, steep for 2 to 3 minutes.  Start with these times and then adapt to your own taste.  If you like your tea steeped a little more, or less, adjust the steeping time slightly.  But, please, remember you must take the tea bag or infuser out of the cup or pot at the end of the steeping time.

POUR AND ENJOY
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAgain, please remove the infuser or the teabags from the teapot or cup.  Don’t leave them in the pot or your tea will oversteep and become bitter.  Do you take milk and sugar with your tea? Feel free.  Now relax and enjoy!

To recap, all you need to make the perfect cuppa is:
.. good quality tea
.. water at the right temperature
.. steeped for the correct amount of time

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The “John” Company

Why am I writing about this company, which actually changed the face of Britain?  Because I am frequently asked “If England never grew tea, how did tea get to England?” Well, here’s the answer.  It all started with establishing the spice trade for Great Britain and the “John” Company …..

spicesSpices had been known to man since the beginning of recorded time.  Pepper, cinnamon, clove, saffron, ginger and nutmeg are some of the oldest.  Not only for preserving foods, spices made spoiled foods taste better, and helped make the ‘unwashed’ smell a little better.  Spices were used for embalming the dead, in religious practices, and as medicine.  Nutmeg, in particular was thought to be a miracle cure for the plague, which killed more than 35,000 people in 1603 in London.

 With spices grown primarily in Asia and the surrounding islands, the Indonesians were the first to begin selling their spices through what is now known as the Ancient Spice Route.  This long and arduous journey began in Indonesia, traveled through China, India and the Middle East to the east coast of Africa and ended in the coastal city of Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria thus became the central trading center for most of Europe.  Needless to say, these much-in-demand spices became very expensive.

The Portuguese were the first to set their ships off to find the spice islands and by the 1400’s, they dominated much of the overseas spice route.  It wasn’t long, however, before the Dutch and the Spanish went in search of these treasures. Who doesn’t remember the poem “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue ….“? Columbus was, of course, searching for the spice islands, but, as we know, went a bit off course.  By the 1600’s, however, these countries all had a stronghold in this area.

The British East India Company, which was originally named the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies, but more commonly known as the “John” Company, was the brain child of London businessmen in 1600 for the sole purpose of importing these expensive and important spices from Asia, which was now dominated by the Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish.

 Led by James Lancaster, the John Company set off for Indonesia with five ships laden with linens, iron and lead to trade with the Indonesians. These items were of no interest to the leaders of these tropical islands. The Company continued on and finally ended up establishing trading posts in India where they bargained with tribal leaders and received exclusive rights to build factories.

The Company brought back all sorts of exotic goods in addition to the spices … silks, porcelain, lacquerware, cocoa, tobacco, tropical fruits, sugar, coffee and tea.  The Queen was delighted!  Royalty and the affluent members of society were fascinated by these, before now, unseen treasures. Although these rich and powerful people knew very little about these other things, what they did know was that they wanted them … all of them!

Trade wars began and because of their violent encounters with the Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese competitors, as well as with pirates, the “Company” found it necessary to create their own military and administrative boards, making them an imperial power.  With this overwhelming power in place, the East India Company soon became the ruler of this massive territory.

One of the more popular items they brought back was, of course, “TEA“.  As with spices, TEA was also first touted for its medicinal benefits …. it “helpeth headaches, giddiness and heaviness …. good for colds, dropsies and scurvies.”  It didn’t take long, however, for tea to be drunk purely for its exotic qualities.  Coffee had been adopted by the French and the Italian.  TEA was to be for the British.  (For more information, be sure to read Earl Grey … The Man The Tea.)

The Company continued building trading posts in India and continued to buy tea from the Dutch, because the Chinese would not trade with the English company.  With the Dutch as the middleman, this made the tea even more expensive.   The Company persisted.  It took about 50 years, but finally they were able to negotiate a trade deal with the Chinese to purchase tea directly.  Their first order was for 100 lbs. The demand for tea grew to the point where less than 100 years later the Company was placing orders for almost 5,000,000 pounds of tea each year!  England was addicted.

The Company was in full control now and was setting the prices. The Chinese wanted to be paid in silver bullion.  At the beginning this wasn’t a problem for the British because silver was in great supply; but with losing the American colonies, access to South America, where the silver was mined, was becoming more and more difficult.

Several decades earlier the Dutch had begun trading tobacco and opium with the Chinese – which the Chinese used mainly for medicinal purposes.  The British, led by the Company, was now ruling over India and had established some opium plantations.  They soon realized the answer to their “tea” problem was to increase their opium trade with the Chinese, ultimately leading to the Opium Wars.

The Company would sell their opium to the Chinese at auction for silver; the very same silver that the Chinese were being paid for their tea.  For the next twenty years, this trade was so lucrative that other trading companies wanted a share.   Although China issued an edict that opium importing and consumption were illegal.  The edict had no effect whatsoever.  The Company, using smugglers and corrupt Chinese officials, continued to bring the drug into the country, using a technique still in practice today of giving away free samples.  Interestingly, the term for accepting bribe money was called “tea money”.
The British East India Company aka the “John” Company had grown into a very powerful political and trading monopoly which rivaled the British Government, and, in effect ruled many of the British Empire’s territories.  It fought nations, set prices and taxed goods.  (We’ll discuss the Boston Tea Party in another blog.)  They had become too powerful and the British government sought to regain control.  No longer was the John Company simply a commercial venture.  It was now a political one.

In 1834 the Company was finally dissolved and it was then that London merchants sprang into action. The first thing they did was to purchase as much tea as possible and as cheaply as possible.

More to come ….

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
References:  The Spice House, The East India Company, THE STORY OF TEA by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert Heiss, Wikipedia