Even if you aren't a "Downton Abbey" addict, I'm going to assume that at some point in time you've watched a British movie or TV show. If you've been to Britain, even better still, as you'll know exactly what I'm talking about: Any situation short of a rugby scrum calls for a cup of tea. Birth, death, your daughter marries the chauffeur, a foreigner is found dead in your bed — put the kettle on.
I married a Welshman 14 years ago. When we go to Britain, over a series of visits to his family and friends, I drink so many cups of tea that I start to use the royal "we." Well, maybe not that, but I do have to wee a lot, in the not-so-royal loo. Nevermind!
One of the very first things I had to learn when I became British-by-marriage was how to brew tea properly. It was soon apparent that English tea with milk is one of those things you mess with at your peril. The finished cup had better look exactly the color of Paddington Bear or it's undrinkable and goes right down the s-bend. There's no measuring involved — that would be too easy and straightforward. Instead, it's pure habit and instinct.
But you can get coaching. For that, I'm going to suggest you go to Churchill's Fine Teas at Findlay Market (122 W. Elder St., 513-421-1455).
Kathleen and Katherine Kern, mother and daughter, respectively, are the owners of Churchill's. They sell hundreds of teas, from oolong to pouchong and beyond, including 28 varieties of tea for the "black tea purist," a category that covers most Brits.
Some of the blends include Duchess Breakfast Blend, named for the Duchess of Cambridge, and Eight at the Fort, a special blend of eight black teas honoring the 23rd G8 Summit. These are sold loose, of course, and not in tea bags, which my sister-in-law would tell you do not hold good tea but "floor sweepings." You see, the Dowager Countess is not alone in her sensibilities over there.
And what would the DC have in her bone china cup? Kathleen Kern said that in Downton Abbey's era, "They would have been drinking black tea blends or 100-percent Keemun black tea, a Chinese tea from the Keemun region of China."
According to the Kerns, "breakfast tea" typically refers to a blend of hearty black teas from India, China, Kenya and Ceylon. Churchill's has an English breakfast tea that is a little milder, a Scottish breakfast that is medium black tea and Irish breakfast, the boldest of the breakfast teas.
"Each brand has their own English breakfast or breakfast teas with their secret ratio of the different black teas to create their blend," Kathleen Kern explains.
For afternoon tea, the drink with jam and bread, Darjeeling black tea —from the Darjeeling region of India — is a popular, lighter black tea. So is Earl Grey tea, a black tea with oil of bergamot added.
The Churchill's ladies say that Darjeeling and Earl Grey would have been available in the time of Downton.
"Today we have easier access to the white, green, oolong, pu-erh and black teas because of the available transportation. We are not relying on camel caravans and clipper ships."
Of course Lady Mary Crawley wouldn't add milk or sugar to her tea, but if you're not trying to fit into a corset, I advise that you use whole milk for your tea. You have to add so much skim to get the proper color that the tea gets diluted.
Another bit of advice: If you are even slightly absent-minded or prone to distraction, I suggest an electric kettle. It's a lifesaver, literally, as there are people who are known to fill the kettle, put it on the stove and wander off to tend to the affairs of state, hire a handsome footman or check Facebook, and then smell smoke an hour later as the kettle has boiled quite dry and a crisis is imminent. Don't ask me how I know that this happens; just believe me. Anyway, an electric kettle shuts itself off when the water has boiled, so if you're nearby you can make the perfect cuppa, or if you have buggered off, there is no fire. Jolly good. Kettles cost about $20 and I found my most recent one at Tuesday Morning.