Tea with a presidential touch

Why do some people people pour their tea into a saucer before drinking it?

Following my columns about tea, I have discovered that we not only have our quirks about the way we make tea, how we add milk, and what shade of brown we like, but there also those who have their own ways of physically drinking it.

I have a specific mug that is my favourite, and if that is in the wash, I have the second best and so on. I like drinking out of a cup and saucer when I’m out at a nice tea shop, because it makes it feel rather special, but I choose not to at home as a cup simply doesn’t contain enough tea for the amount I consume in one sitting. I down three mugs in rapid succession in the morning, so if I was restricted to dainty little cups, I’d be constantly having to fill them up.

But there are some people who don’t drink from either a mug or a cup. I was contacted by Phil Collier from Farndale who told me: “It brought to mind my grandfather, Jack Wardell, who farmed at North Farm, Fadmoor. Grandfather’s tea was always milk first and tea leaves, not bags. He always took his tea in a big cup and saucer. Said tea was then poured into the saucer and drunk from it. Quite a delicate touch for someone with agricultural hands. He drank his tea this way until his death. Thank you for the articles, always something to remind us of the old times.”

I asked Phil if he thought pouring tea from a cup into a saucer was just a quirk of his grandfather, or whether it was a peculiarly North Yorkshire way of supping the brew. He didn’t know, and so both of us asked our mothers if they knew of anyone who drank tea in this rather unusual way, and neither of them did.

After discussing it with his wife Shirley Ann, Phil discovered that her father had also drunk his tea that way. “He was a fruit grower in Norfolk and she thinks it was to cool it so he could get back onto the land. It sounds quite plausible,” he says. So I wondered then if it could it be a quirk of farmers rather than simply a North Yorkshire thing?

Having done a bit more research on this, I can confirm that Shirley Ann is absolutely right. Tea used to be drunk to quench thirst far more than plain water, and usually labourers would only get short breaks. So to be able to drink the steaming hot brew comfortably but within the limited time window, the workers would pour a little bit into their saucers to cool it quickly and allow them to satisfy their thirst.

When tea first started to be drunk many centuries ago in China, it was out of small bowls, which didn’t have handles like today’s teacups. If you’ve been to a Chinese restaurant recently and ordered tea, you will likely still have been served it in little cups without handles. But the green tea popular in China is meant to be drunk warm, rather than hot, and so holding the cup in your bare hands is not an issue.

Back in 18th century Europe, the popularity of Chinese green tea waned to be taken over by Indian black tea, which was drunk at a much higher temperature. It was difficult to hold the cup with bare hands, and that’s when we begin to see cups being made with handles on them, the first purportedly appearing in 1707 Germany thanks to a porcelain inventor named Johann Friedrich Bottge.

The problem of drips and spillages meant that soon after that saucers began to be made upon which you could set these daintily-handled little cups, saving scorched hands as well as protecting tables and fine cloths from stains due to spilt tea.

In the 18th century, pouring your tea into your saucer wasn’t just the preserve of lowly labourers, but was a fashionable thing to do among the well-to-do. There is a story that when Thomas Jefferson was questioning why the USA needed a Senate, George Washington explained that the Senate’s job was to ‘cool’ the heat of suggested legislation in the same way that Jefferson poured tea into his saucer to cool it down.

So it seems Phil Collier’s grandfather’s method of drinking tea was actually inspired by presidents.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 3rd and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 1st February 2023