Back in the nineteenth century, English moustaches were huge, waxed and worn on every forelip that could muster them. This caused problems: the nineteenth century was also a key tea-drinking period, and if you dangle your waxed moustache above a gently steaming cup of tea, the wax melts. Even if your moustache manages to hold up its magnificent peaks through strength and bloodymindedness, it’s still going to get tea in it.
Fortunately, ingenious nineteenth-century potters found a solution: the moustache cup. A small ledge sits across the top of a teacup, and tea-drinkers rest their moustaches on top of the ledge, sipping tea through a little hole while keeping their waxed ends safe.
In these modern days of less complex teacups, it would perhaps be possible to guard one’s moustache by drinking directly from the spout, as teapot designers originally intended; or, venturing into the less distant past, by making tea so repellant that you have no desire to drink it. In the seventeenth century, when tea was still in the process of being introduced to Europe, one set of instructions suggested that the drinker
beat up the yolks of two new-laid eggs with a dessertsponful of fine sugar and then mix them with a pint of hot (but not boiling hot) China tea that has been poured off the leaves.
Apparently the scrambled-egg tea drink
discusseth and satisfieth all rawness and indigence of the stomack, flying over the whole body into the veins, and strengtheneth exceedingly and preserves one a good while from the necessity of eating.
I find it quite easy to believe that I would be relieved from the necessity of eating for some time after eggy tea, yes.
If you can ignore the bit where they’re pouring it onto eggs, though, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were a great period for tea in Europe, mostly because nobody was quite sure how to make it or what its effects were. Maybe it was an evil drug (William Cobbett, campaigner against the evils of tea, claimed that tea “is, in fact, a weaker kind of laudanum, which enlivens for the moment and deadens afterwards”); maybe it was the best thing ever.
For some reason, anti-tea activists were particularly keen on involving pigs in their experiments: Cobbet suggested that people who doubt the poisonous nature of tea should
put it to the test with a lean hog: give him the fifteen bushels of malt and he will repay you in ten score of bacon or thereabouts. But give him 730 tea messes, or rather begin to give them to him, and give him nothing else, and he is dead from hunger, and bequeaths you his skeleton, at the end of about seven days.
and the anti-tea Mr Hanway reported an experiment which showed the apparently dire results of, er, scorching a pig’s tail with hot tea.
On the other side, though, there were anecdotes demonstrating that tea was a healthful tonic:
The Princesse de Tarente [...] takes 12 cups of tea every day, which, she says, cures all her ills. She assured me that Monsieur de Landgrave drank 40 cups every morning. ‘But Madame, perhaps it is really only 30 or so.’ ‘No, 40. He was dying, and it brought him back to life before our eyes.’
To be fair, this last is from Madame de Sévigné, who also reports that, for example, the fair-skinned Marquise de Coëtlogon drank too much hot chocolate during her pregnancy and as a result gave birth to a small black child. Plus she doesn’t report any experiments involving pigs, so she can’t be very reliable.
Desperate to settle the matter of whether tea is a harmful drug or a delightful healthgiver, but without any pigs at hand, I recently conducted an experiment with two housemates, an aunt, and a small boy, whereby I denied them sandwiches and cake and fed them only tea and scones. They’re still alive, twitching their big hairy ears and wiggling their curly little tails, so presumably that settles it: tea is healthy, and also these scones are pretty nice.
Cranberry Buttermilk Scones
(Changed minimally from these scones, which suggest clotted cream and raspberry butter to accompany)
5 tablespoons buttermilk
225 grams self-raising flour
Pinch of salt
85 grams butter
50 grams golden caster sugar, plus a little extra for sprinkling
1 medium egg
50 grams dried cranberries
Preheat oven to 220C/200 fan-forced, and line a baking tray with baking parchment.
Sift the flour into a bowl, then add the salt. Cut the butter into squares and rub it into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs, then stir in the sugar.
Beat the egg together with three tablespoons of the buttermilk, and then stir this gradually into the flour mixture until the dough starts forming a coherent whole. Once it begins clumping together add the cranberries, and continue to stir until it’s beginning to cling together in a big lump. Knead it lightly for a very little while, less than thirty seconds. If the mixture is too sticky, add a little extra flour, and if it’s too dry, a bit of extra buttermilk, until it’s at a playdough-like consistency.
Lay the dough on a floured surface and roll it out to two or three centimetres thick. Cut out the scones using a scone-cutter or glass that’s about five centimetres wide, and lay them on the tray, gathering up the leftover scraps of dough and rolling them out again till you’ve used them all up.
Brush the tops of the scones with the remaining buttermilk and then sprinkle a little sugar on top (or dust them with flour if you’d prefer), then cook for about 10 minutes, until they look golden and cooked on top and on their bottoms.
Serve with butter and jam, or cream if you really insist.
Offline sources: Alice Thomas Ellis, Fish, Flesh and Good Red Herring. Virago Press.