THE BROWN BETTY

I become practically apoplectic when I watch someone prepare tea using a microwave, a mug and a teabag.  I want to shout “stop, what are you doing?”  But, of course, I don’t.  The reason why is because it really doesn’t matter to them that what they are doing is not preparing tea, but making some sort of hot beverage, quickly.  Am I a tea snob?  Some might say ‘yes’, but I don’t think so.  Would that same person think mixing a teaspoon of instant coffee powder into a mug of water and zapping that in the microwave is a good cup of coffee?  I hope not.

I love all things tea … from the origins of the leaf to the ritualistic preparations, the variety of ethnic traditions, as well as the fascinating accoutrements.  For preparation, the simple unadorned, unpretentious Brown Betty is one of my favorite teapots.  I know its a name that is familiar to a lot of tea drinkers, but I wonder if anyone knows how this modest, round-bellied pot got its name and why some devout tea drinkers think it the only vessel worthy of steeping a perfect cuppa.

Although quintessentially British, the origins of the teapot are actually Chinese.  As more and more tea was being imported from China into Europe and Great Britain beginning in the 1600s, a vessel in which to steep the tea became necessary.  The first teapot ever created was in China in the 15th century, but the Chinese primarily steep their tea individually in small porcelain bowls called gaiwans.  Europeans, however, wanted to steep larger quantities and demanded a more practical way of preparing and serving their tea.  Knowing this, the East India Company commissioned the Chinese to come up with a larger, more useful vessel.

Chinese artisans designed these pots, each with a spout, handle and lid. These vessels were small, unadorned, round pots, made from the red clay of the Yixing area … and ideal for preparing a good cuppa tea.  The teapots were packed in crates by the thousands and placed in the cargo holds in the bottom of the large sailing ships, which also helped to provide ballast, while the teas were then packed on top.  Everything was sure to arrive safely to ports throughout Europe and England.

Ming Dynasty Yixing Teapot

As we all know, tea was incredibly expensive at that time, and kept under lock and key, to be enjoyed only by the wealthy.  As tea pots started appearing, the aristocracy demanded these as well.  The Dutch were the first to request permission to try to reproduce these tea steeping ‘pots’.  In 1679 two potters from Delft sent a letter to the court of the Count of Holland stating: “we, associates, have discovered production techniques which make it possible to copy the teapots from the East Indies. We request permission to produce these pots for 15 years and to be the only ones to market them”.  But it was two silversmiths from Holland, brothers John and David Elers, who also saw the potential for this new industry and relocated to England to become potters.

In the Stoke-on-Trent area, the Elers brothers were able to find veins of fine red clay, the clay most like the red clay the Chinese were using.  The brothers then quickly and secretly established a factory in the area, and began producing some of the finest pottery to be found … some of which is on display today in the Victory Albert Museum in London.  Although their  “fine pottery” business was not financially profitable, they had a huge influence on the growth of this industry, making Staffordshire the ceramics capital of the world.

Two Teapots by the Elers Brothers 1627.  Photograph by David Jackson, CC BY-SA 2.0

As tea became more affordable, teapots became more in demand.  Artisans from Swinton pottery developed a unique glaze from iron and manganese that was brushed on the outside of the clay  pot. The excess glaze was allowed to run down the sides, creating an elegant streaky finish when it was fired.  That shiny brown glaze, referred to as the Rockingham glaze, in combination with the natural color of the clay, helped give the Brown Betty pot its name.

So, we’ve learned how “Brown”, became part of the name of this teapot, but what about “Betty”?

During the Victorian era, every affluent household had servants.  In the grander homes, there were servants who worked “downstairs” and servants who worked “upstairs”.   The “downstairs” servants generally were not known by their name and were usually referred to by their job, “cook” or “boots”, but the “upstairs” servants were well known to the lords and ladies of the house and would probably be referred to by a ‘nick name’.  MaryJane would become “Mary”.  Abigail would become “Abby”.  Elizabeth would become “Betty”.

The name Elizabeth, shortened to “Betty” was a very popular name then.  The hugely successful Betty’s Tearooms were begun (and still very popular today) by Swiss baker, Fritz Butzer, but there was no “Betty” in his family.  Perhaps he was inspired to name his tearoom for Betty Lupton, the queen of Harrogate, or the popular theater production about a maid named “Betty”, or could it have been “Betty” Rose, the granddaughter of his first investor in Betty’s Tearooms.  As Elizabeth was such a popular name, chances were that at least one servant was called “Betty” … and, “Betty” probably served tea.

By the mid-1800s, with many Staffordshire Pottery factories producing them, the teapot had evolved somewhat and became considerably more affordable.  And by 1926, it was estimated that the industry was producing approximately 500,000 Brown Betty Teapots per week … making it the most popular, widely used teapot in the country.

And what is it about this teapot that makes the Brown Betty my favorite pot for steeping tea?  Not particularly colorful or decorative, this unpretentious, utilitarian pot has a big round belly which allows the loose leaves to swirl around and infuse the water properly.  The clay retains the heat from the boiling water, holding the tea at the perfect temperature for me.  The handle is big and comfortable and the spout is dripless.  What more could anyone want in a teapot?

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References:  Hoteliers, Cauldon Ceramics, Wikipedia, VisitStoke, Bettys, Coffeeteaclub, thebrownbetty,

Portmeirion . . . ?

On the southern coast of northern Wales lies the magical village of Portmeirion … and I couldn’t wait to visit.   As a subscriber to many travel magazines, Snowdonia and Portmeirion always seemed to pop up as a feature in one or another.  The photographs looked amazing, but I must admit I had never bothered to delve into the articles.  Many friends have visited and told me if we were going to visit Wales, I had to put Portmeirion on my “must visit” list.  We did.

The Prisoner – Patrick McGoohan

If you happened to be around in the 60’s, then you know Portmeirion was the location for the short-lived, cult tv series THE PRISONER, starring the oh so handsome Patrick McGoohan. That’s where my knowledge ended.

We had been staying in Snowdonia National Park for the week and, now I’m ready to visit this “interesting, but-not-really-sure-what-it-is” place.  Armed with only a map, no travel brochures to be found, we took an afternoon to visit … again not really sure what it was we were going to. Easy enough to find, but signage made it appear to be some sort of amusement park … ‘where to park’ and ‘where not to park’, admission times and prices, ‘no dogs allowed’.  This ‘lack of welcome’ was a little off putting.  Still confused about what type of place this was … a residential village, an amusement park, or a museum?  After parking our car, paying the admission and picking up a couple of brochures, we walked down the path into the village … and this unique, quirky, colorful little village unveiled itself.

Inspired by the Portofino village which lies on the Amalfi coast in Italy, Portmeirion was the brain-child of Welsh architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who set out to recreate his own personal idyllic community.

A very successful and ambitious architect as well as avid sailor, Sir Clough’s dream was “to erect a whole group of buildings on my own chosen site for my own satisfaction – an ensemble that would in fact be me.Since the age of 6, he had imagined “creating clusters of architecturally imaginative buildings”, which is a great description for Portmeirion’s charm. The footpaths crisscross from this way to that and what appears to be one thing from a distance, is actually something else entirely when you get closer to it. Windows are painted on.  Doors lead to nowhere.  A boat which appears to be docked, isn’t a boat at all.  The colors on the buildings are bright, warm and Mediterranean.  The gardens, of which there are many, from the small, clipped formal gardens to a 70-acre sub-tropical forest, are truly magnificent.  All of this lying on a small sandy peninsula overlooking the Traeth Bach tidal estuary, in northern Wales.

Aerial View of Portmeirion Village

Sir Clough Williams-Ellis began looking for the perfect site years before buying this location and, after visiting 22 islands some as far away as New Zealand, ended up finding the perfect spot not far from where he lived.  The ideal location was a private peninsula off the coast of Snowdonia, where a neglected hundred-year-old mansion on an overgrown, weed-choked plot of land was for sale.

Clough bought this “neglected wilderness” in 1925 for £20,000 and spent the next 50 years creating the place of his dreams.  It was never easy.  World War II saw a ban on all building. Finding, buying and transporting the glorious buildings, columns, ceilings, plasterwork, stones, all took time and money.  He knew that eventually the only way this place was going to succeed financially would be with tourist dollars.  He was right.

This unique, little hamlet of tranquility attracted quite a few creative people seeking refuge and solace.  Noel Coward, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell were frequent guests.  But the one who is responsible for unveiling this idylic retreat was Patrick McGoohan, who hid away in Portmeirion while writing his new tv series, The Prisoner. When Portmeirion was given credit at the end of the series as the filming location, fans of the series thronged to this village, and they haven’t stopped.

We were there for the day, but for those wanting a longer stay, there is the Hotel Portmeirion, where you can choose from a lovely room overlooking the estuary, or perhaps one of the 13 cottages.  If you are there for the day, and are not planning to have a (rather expensive) meal at the (rather expensive) hotel, there are a couple of eateries, The Town Hall Cafe, Caffi Glas and Caffi Sgwar.  They do get quite busy, so plan in advance.

For shopping, of course there is Portmeirion Pottery.  In New England you can find world-class Portmeirion pottery in every high-end gift shop.  But, honestly, I wasn’t quite clear on the connection between “Portmeirion the village” and “Portmeirion the dishware”.

Portmeirion Pottery was founded by Sir Clough’s daughter, Susan Williams-Ellis.  As artistic as her father, Susan graduated from the Chelsea Art School and began by working as a book illustrator, but pottery was soon to become her passion.  At a small pottery shop in Stoke-on-Trent, Susan began by applying her designs to other people’s pottery.  Portmeirion the village wasn’t quite the tourist attraction it is now, but it did have a small souvenir shop, which was doing poorly.  Susan and her husband took over the running of this small shop in 1953 and began creating the iconic designs we have all come to love and recognize.

Do I recommend a trip to Snowdonia National Park?  Absolutely!  It is magnificent in its steely greyness, mirror blue lakes, wooley pine trees and rocky coastline.  And while there, do I recommend a trip to Portmeirion?  How could you not visit this unique little peninsula of creativity.   And if I were to define Portmeirion … would I say it’s ‘a residential village, an amusement park, or a museum’?  I’m still not sure.  What I do know is that it is an elegant, strange, magical place that, once you grasp its meaning, leaves you in childlike wonder.

Clough’s motto “Cherish the past, adorn the present, construct for the future” lives on at Portmeirion.

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References: Snowdonia National Park, Portmeirion Village, Susan Williams-Ellis, Portmeirion Pottery
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