Thursday 21 May 2009

Tea for Tú

By Richard Morley.
It was one of those semi-xenophobic clichés supposedly spoken by British holidaymakers after they had returned from their annual fortnight on the Costas: “You just can’t get a good cup of tea in Spain”.

As a rule, I tend to opine that visitors should accept the place they visit at face value and not judge it by where they come from. If the life style, the food and the customs were not different from “back home”, then there would be little point in travelling. After all, it’s only for a few weeks! What’s more, if all they find to complain about is the quality of the tea, then they’ve not had it too bad.

Recently there has been a list of traveller’s complaints circulating on the internet. Personally, I am a little suspicious of some of them. There were complaints that English biscuits could not be bought in the Seychelles, that one women’s holiday was ruined by her husband ogling topless girls on the beach, and that one lady claimed she should have been warned that the food in Goa would be spicy and consequently she was unable to eat a thing.

Years ago, the Spanish tourist board promoted the country with the tag line, “Spain is different”. Some people seem to have a problem with that.

One complaint about Spain from the above list dwelt on the fact that “there were too many Spanish, the receptionist in the hotel spoke Spanish, and that all the food was Spanish”. Another grumbled that none of the shops were open in the afternoon because of siesta and suggested that the very act of taking a well-earned lie-down in the heat of the afternoon be banned.

But after their vacations, these Moaning Minnies go home. What about those of us who live here? Most of us expats choose to live here and love the place. Some of us, the ones who do not live in the British ghettos on the coast, learn the ways, the culture, the language and what is good to eat and drink, and get on very well.

But I cannot deny my heritage and, but whisper this very quietly, sometimes I prefer a taste of home. I wrote some time ago about parsnips and how our tastes differ. Believe me, it goes further. The Spanish will not thank you for offering them English Mustard, HP Sauce or Marmite. And because I live in a Spanish home, I become well aware that “Spain is different” – from us.

And so, back to the tea.

Every aficionado of tea knows that to get the best out of the leaf, one has to use BOILING water. Not hot – boiling. Being English, top of my list of necessary items when I moved into my own place in Madrid was a kettle, and so I began an expedition. I didn’t know it actually would be an expedition. I thought I would pop across to a long commercial street not far from where I live and buy this simple domestic device.

The street is four kilometres long and probably every fifth shop is a dealer in domestic appliances, so there shouldn’t have been a problem. Three hours later I knew differently! There were no kettles! I was now, however, an expert on a thousand different ways of making coffee: from the simple grey aluminium one-cup percolator to devices only NASA could have designed. They were shiny, curly, from penny plain stainless steel to maharajah’s magnificence. They filtered, they percolated, they had pipes, funnels, knobs and switches, taps and valves. They all guaranteed perfect coffee, which should be made from water heated to around ninety degrees Celsius (185 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit for readers using old technology). This means, NONE OF THEM ACTUALLY BOILED THE WATER.

This is why when you order tea in a Spanish café it will be made from water from the big silver coffee machine and consequently be several degrees cooler than you expected. Or you could be faced with the prospect of dunking your teabag into a cup of slimy, rapidly skinning milk that the same machine has just steam heated.

Neither of which is acceptable to the true aficionado of real tea.

Then there is the matter of what tea? A cursory glance on the shelves of any Spanish supermarket or in the proffered tray of teabags in a café or restaurant will demonstrate a huge range of teas from which to choose: Mint, Cinnamon, apple, orange etc. Anything in fact except tea flavoured. The Spanish don’t call them teas, but “Infusions”. Infusions – refuse ‘ems. At least I do. (Well, actually I do quite like the apple, but only occasionally!)

At the risk of being sued for libel, I have to state that the brand of tea most offered for sale in Spain, Hornimans, is not worthy of the name “tea”. It too comes in several different flavours. Out of desperation, I bought a box of their “Black” tea, expecting it to be something close to my normal tastes. After using three bags in the cup I managed to get it to taste of something, but as this is a decent, well-mannered blog, I will not describe of what!

Discussing this just yesterday with a Spanish friend, even she stated that tea made with boiled water tasted better. However, at home she would boil water in a pan or the microwave! (A very dangerous method!) I like my friend. I’d hate to see her with scars from exploding scolding water on her pretty face.

When I suggested she buy a kettle, she remarked that her kitchen was already full of almost every known device known to the culinary arts and a kettle would just get in the way. A humorous internet circulated list of reasons how you know you have been in Spain too long included “When you are no longer surprised that every kitchen has a deep fat fryer, but does not have a kettle”.

To cut a long story short I left the long kettle-less street, went to the large French hypermarket on the other side of town, and bought a cheap(ish) plastic jug electric kettle. This strange piece of equipment (to Spanish eyes) became a source of wonder for the children with whom I share an apartment. A window on the side showed how much water it contained. It glowed an eerie yellow light when I switched it on and automatically switched itself off when the water had boiled. The first time I used it the youngest watched with open-eyed fascination and asked me what I was doing. He seemed quite disappointed when I replied I was making a cup of tea! When the eldest saw the thing in action he remarked, “Que guay”. Pronounced like the letters K Y and means “That’s cool”. (And you are only allowed to use that phrase if you are under twenty!)

However, it is possible to buy favourite English teas in Madrid. El Corte Inglés, everyone favourite department store sells Liptons, Tetleys, Twinings and Yorkshire Tea brands. There is also a delightful shop not far from Bilbao metro rejoicing in the wonderful name of “Things You Miss”, which sells all sorts of English goodies (including “All Sorts”- Brits will know what I mean,) and sells several different brands of tea.

So, it is possible to get a good cup of tea in Spain. Well, in my home at least! In cafés, it’s better to stick with coffee. With that, the Spanish know exactly what they’re doing!

Oh, and yes, I do add a dash of cold milk – but that’s a whole other discussion here in Spain.

What’s your favourite tea? Do you know a café in Madrid that serves piping hot English style tea? Or do you like your tea tepid, weak, and tasting of … never mind? Feel free to dunk your comment bags in the comment cups below. Blogger sometimes likes it strong, you might have to dunk twice.


  1. Richard: Being American with a military background, I am a coffee drinker and have no idea why anyone would drink tea. While my mother likes both tea and coffee, I do not care for the "black" tea or "green tea." If I am going to have a hot drink after dinner in Spain, I do not take coffee because I don't want the caffiene. As you may recall from our trip to Pals, I had the mint or chamomille tea after dinner - neither of which require boiling water for me. Should you venture to this side of the pond and come visit us, I do not want to be hot water with you - I will make sure to have real tea with boiling water.

  2. Tom, that stuff that comes in Mint or Camomile (both spellings are correct, by the way, should never be confused with TEA. Tea is what you drink to prepare you for the day. Coffee is what I need before going to bed!! TEA rich and strong enough to stand your spoon up in. It should also be scolding hot. People who let their tea cool, and even fan it to help it lose temperature, are beyond the pale. A hot cup of tea on a warm day is a better thirst quencher than anything else. However, from the time of the Boston tea party Americans have shown little respect for the world's best drink and I am not surprised you don't know how to make it.

  3. Oh, how many fruitless hours did I spend with Julie trying to buy a kettle for her hostal room?! We too ventured into many electrical shops, armed with "Tienes una machina por hacer agua caliente?". Yes, I realise that that may be why we received so many blank looks, but still, we were amazed at the lack of this simplest of kitchen appliances! In the end, El Corte Ingles came up trumps but....!!

    Talking of ECI, a mate asked me to bring some Earl Grey Tea back from the UK for him. I must remember to point out that he can get it in ECI.

    As a non-coffee drinker, tea is pretty much the only thing about "home" I really miss. My first month here I had no kettle and only Hornimans teabags. Even though I pretty much kicked ass at boiling the water in the microwave (you have to have the teabag in right at the start to avoid any danger of explosion!) for exactly the right amount of time, it still didn't taste right. Though you'd hate my tea - teabag is whipped out after about 5 seconds, then about half a cup of cold soya milk is added. Commonly known as "witch piss", I believe.

    So you can imagine my delight to find that the flat I'm in now has a kettle oven!!! Luxury. Bloody luxury.

  4. Earl Grey tea is served at Café y Té, that chain of cafés that seem to be everywhere. Although, of course, it will only come hottish. What rich people to buy your electrical items at El Corte Inglés (BTW, tildes and accents ARE important!)The Carrefour Hipermercados have an excellent range of kettles at excellent prices, as does Mediamakt and Saturn at Plenilunio Mall.

  5. Well with greetings from Sunny Scotland, and from a really 'jenny' I can only say that when ever I come to visit, I've a travel kettle and a bag of Tetley.
    As you know Richard I love coming to Madrid and never want to leave but if I had to go without at least a cup of tea every morning and another with my last fag at night I'd be so hit with withdrawals that even the Spanish sun couldn't sooth me.

  6. Yes, the travel kettle is an absolute must for the British who like their tea made properly. The problem with Madrid hostals is trying to find a socket to plug it in to!!! I once had to slide a wardrobe a few inches to reveal the only power point in the room.
    (Note: For the benefit of US readers, the "fag" nic refers to, is a cigarette!)

  7. When I went home for the holidays, I returned with nearly half a (large) suitcase full of *real* tea, which I knew from experience I couldn't find here.

    However a few months ago I discovered a health food store near Arguelles that has a pretty decent loose tea selection, and I've enjoyed several from there.

  8. Milk in first or after pouring?

  9. For anyone looking for simpler ways to find kettles in Madrid... Most Chino Bizars stock them, to my recolection. The one over the road from my flat does anyway. My flatmate bought one a few months ago.

  10. Fresh milk is what I miss most from England. I sometimes buy fresh milk in Carrefour or ECI and you can actually freeze it. I cannot stand UHT milk with cereal.
    @Gary. milk after

  11. Oh it's definately "milk after", but I am the only one in my family who does this and apparently it makes me some kind of class traitor. For those who are interested, there's a story behind this. Before the use of bone china in English homes, cups were a of basic earthenware construction. Very hot liquids would cause them to crack. So before hot tea could be poured, one put the milk in first to reduce the temperature. This is not necessary with bone china and so milk could be added afterwards, or even not at all. One could use lemon etc. (Shudder!) But bone porcelain was out of the reach of working class pockets, so only the rich had them.
    So if you were able to add your milk second, you were rich and upper class. First, and you were poor.
    So, class ridden England still exists in these tiny acts - and apparently this makes me posh. What rubbish!