A classy brew

Thanks to my father, I know the value of a proper cup of tea

I was raised in a household riven by class conflict, my father tenaciously adhering to his working-class origins, my mother timidly but determinedly aspiring to be a part of Middle England. The battle lines were drawn through many household rituals, and normally peaceful customs and ceremonies were, in our home, the scene of cosmic conflict.

The choice between tea and coffee was an example. For the Scrutons, this was not a matter of divergent tastes, but a profound spiritual test, in which the devil of social aspiration fought with the angel of class solidarity for the Scruton soul. To my father, coffee was the drink of Tory grandees and do-gooding middle-class women. The doors of hell closed behind the coffee drinkers, who could be rescued thereafter only by some fearless evangelist in workmen's clothes, prepared to step into the darkness and wrestle with the demon of upper-class charm.

The tin of Nescafé that my mother kept for her secret drinks was hidden away behind tins and packets, now in this cupboard, now in that. When, in his vigilant searches for sin, my father would come across the unmistakable sign of it, he would utter a terrible cry and throw the tin with a curse into the dustbin. My mother would look timidly in his direction, sometimes explaining that she didn't know how it had got there, that it must have been left over from some hen party, and that it was odd to find a tin of Nescafé in a household where no one drank anything but tea. The next day the tin would be back, carefully secreted in some place recently scoured for signs of corruption and unlikely to be searched again.

Tea was the one item of our diet which escaped the rule that only the cheapest was acceptable. Of course, poncey blends like Earl Grey and Lapsang were ruled out. Nevertheless, my father believed that working-class attitudes could be the more deeply and securely entrenched if swallowed with a large mug of strong, mahogany-coloured tea, taken with milk, and drunk piping hot. Although cheap blended teas, such as Brooke Bond Dividend, were permitted as staple, doctrine required that they be enlivened with a quantity of Orange Pekoe, Darjeeling or Assam. The teapot had to be scrupulously warmed, the tea heaped into it, one teaspoon per person and one for the pot, before being covered in boiling water, to brew for three minutes and a half.

I have obeyed very few of the lessons that my father struggled to impart to me. But to this day I aver that he was entirely right about tea, that no other way of making it is remotely acceptable, and that the use of tea bags, or the recourse to those perfumed infusions of the upper middle classes, is a sin against our national heritage. But I have come to doubt that this is demanded by class loyalty rather than educated taste.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it