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.

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

Raisins, Sultanas or Currants?

Have you ever read a British recipe only to see “sultanas” or “currants” as an ingredient?  And have you ever then put that recipe down because who has “sultanas” or “currants” in the cupboard?  Probably no one in the states.  But do you know what they are and what you can use?

I’m pretty sure we all know what raisins are?  Dried seedless grapes. The majority of our grapes are grown in California, originally from the ‘Sultanina’ grape (possibly named because of its origination in the town Soultanieh in the middle East).

In 1870 William Thompson imported this variety of grape to California for his vineyards.  But from the devastating drought of 1873 William was left with nothing but shriveled up grapes on his vines.  Making ‘lemonade out of lemons’ Thompson sold the dried up grapes as a “Peruvian Delicacy” and low and behold the California raisin industry was born!  The Sultanina grape is now known as the Thompson grape and is the most widely planted grape in the industry.

Dried grapes (or raisins) have been around for thousands of years though.  Whether it’s grapes, or plums, figs or apricots, leaving vegetables and fruits out to dry in the sun is one of the oldest methods of preserving food.  More than 2,000 years B.C. wall paintings found throughout the Mediterranean showed us that dried fruits were a major part of the diet.  In medieval times, dried fruits were the most common form of sweetener, far more popular (and more expensive) than honey. In Roman times, two bags of dried fruits could buy a slave.

 So now that we’ve established what a raisin is, what is a sultana? Sultanas are actually nothing more than ‘raisins’, but made from the lighter green Thompson grapes. When dried, they are golden in color and tend to be a bit bigger and sweeter than our ordinary raisins.  Sultanas are easy to find in the supermarket under the name “golden raisins”.  In baking you can use golden raisins anytime sultanas are called for in a recipe.

Currants, on the other hand, are a completely different fruit.  Much smaller in size and quite tart, whether red or black, currants are berries grown on shrubs or bushes and not grown on vines. Most often, currants are associated with only being available in Great Britain.  Sun Maid sells a product called Zante Currants, which is not a currant at all but a grape, originally from Greece, and should not be confused with the currants of Great Britain.

The currants used in many British recipes are, for the most part, not available in the U.S. Commercial cultivation of these currants was banned from 1911 until 2003 because of concerns the plants could harbor a disease that had the potential to devastate American timber.  Disease-resistant varieties were developed and now the ban has been lifted.  For this reason, many Americans confuse Zante raisins with currants.  Although I’ve never tried growing currants, I’m told they grow easily in your own backyard.  So until I do, I’m probably going to use Sun Maid’s Zante Currants (raisins) in place of British currants in my baking.

Whether in baking or in savory foods, be sure to use plenty of raisins, sultanas or currants in your cooking … or just keep them around as a handy snack.  A low-fat food, full of antioxidants and polyphenolic phytonutrients, dried fruits act as an anti-inflammatory and can help protect the body against free radicals.  Dried fruits also contain iron, B vitamins, potassium and magnesium, which helps build red blood cells and healthy bones.  Red and black currants, in particular, have four times more vitamin C than oranges and twice the antioxidants of blueberries.   Great for digestion because they contain lots of fiber, these sweet, delicious dried fruits really are nature’s candy.

So the next time you’re about to make Spotted Dick, a Christmas Pudding or Bara Brith, don’t be afraid to reach for the ‘raisins’.

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References:  Raisin Grape Varieties,  Isons Nurseries, Sun Maid, Cornell University, Wise Geek

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Scotch Eggs …. the original Fast Food!

I’ve been to Scotland, but I never saw a Scotch Egg.  In fact, I’ve never eaten a Scotch Egg.  What are they?  You certainly don’t see them here in the States.  And in the U.K., for the most part, they had faded into obscurity …… until recently that is.   It seems this food item was for the longest time considered among the “worst foods in Great Britain”.

Most often you find Scotch Egg s in the convenience foods aisle of the supermarkets or in the take-away section of a roadside rest area.  Morrisons, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose all sell them as frozen foods ready to take home, throw in the microwave and enjoy (?) for afternoon tea.

But, wait a minute . . . Tesco has just introduced a new version of the Scotch Egg wrapped in pastry . . .  and this hand-held snack recently appeared on a foodie magazine’s list as one of the “cool” new foods . . . not to mention Chef Tom Kerridge who has a gourmet version of the Scotch Egg in his Michelin-starred restaurant.  Scotch Eggs are being wrapped in patés, in avocado, in Black Pudding.  There are Scotch Eggs using quail eggs, ginger, tumeric, Panko ….  Apparently, what is old is new again.

Fortnum & MasonSo where did the Scotch Egg come from?  The posh London department store, Fortnum & Mason, takes credit for inventing this snack in the 18th century as part of its portable luncheon for travelers. In the 18th century traveling was a long and arduous event for even the shortest distances.  If you got hungry, there were no fast food restaurants along the way.  MacDonalds, Burger King’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken,Taco Bell?  So what did you do when you did get hungry?  Hopefully, you planned ahead.

Dr. Andrea Tanner, Fortnum & Mason’s archivist says “From the very beginning of the business Fortnum’s used to produce ready-made dishes like pork pies for travelers, which were put in baskets with disposable bamboo cutlery. The Scotch egg was one of those foods. It was small enough to fit in a handkerchief or pocket, and maybe was rather less smelly than tucking into a hardboiled egg on a coach.”

If they were a convenient luncheon or snack item in the 18th century, then why not now?  They are easily transportable . . . perfect for tailgating parties, backyard cookouts or school lunches.  Low cal?  No!  High protein?  Absolutely!  How do they taste?  Let’s find out!

SCOTCH EGGS
Recipe adapted from Simon Rimmer’s “SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND”

5 large eggs  (soft, medium or hard boiled)
12 oz. sausage meat
fresh thyme – 1 tsp.
fresh parsley – 1 tblsp.
1/2 onion, minced
flour seasoned with salt and pepper
bread crumbs (or Panko)
1 egg, beaten
salt and pepper
vegetable oil for frying

 If you don’t know how to boil eggs, let’s start there.  Place 5 eggs in cold water.  Bring to a boil. Cover, turn off heat and let sit.  Depending upon how hard you want the yoke, it can be 4, 6, 8 minutes.  Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon, cool and shell under cold running water.

Prepare three dishes for coating the mixture:  an egg wash, seasoned flour, and breadcrumbs.


If you are using sausage in a casing, remove the casing.  In a bowl add sausage meat, thyme, parsley and minced onion.  Add salt and pepper.  Mix well.  Divide this mixture into five mounds (for five eggs).


In your hand take one mound of sausage and form a flattened round.  Place the cooked egg in the center and form the ball around it.  Do this for each egg.

Take the sausage wrapped egg and dip each one into the beaten egg wash, then the flour and finally the breadcrumbs, making sure they are completely covered.

Heat the vegetable oil to about 325.  Carefully place the eggs into the oil to cook.  It will take approximately 6 to 8 minutes per egg.  With slotted spoon remove the egg and place onto a paper towel to drain.   (You may need to finish the eggs in the oven – which is what I did.)

How were they?  If you love pork sausage, you’ll love these.  For me, they were dense and a bit heavy. They really are perfect for a portable lunch or snack.  Very filling and satisfying, I can’t imagine eating more than one (but hubby certainly can).  I think next time I’ll “oven fry” them and see if that lightens then up a bit.  Also I think I’m going to undercook the eggs so they are a bit softer and I’ll try chicken instead of pork sausage.   Hmmmm, I think we have may something!!

 

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References:  BBC Food, The Guardian, Something for the Weekend, Fortnum & Mason