Saturday, 12 April 2014

No Cuppa With Me Supper

Tea is definitely my favourite hot beverage. 

For me, tea is so much more than just a pleasant way to rehydrate: it wakes me up in the mornings, gets me through a busy day at work, and helps me relax in the evenings. I'm not the only one- like many other British folk, I have an automatic 'make tea' stress response. I turn to the teapot for solace, distraction, procrastination, and warmth. In truth, I actually love the stuff.

In 17 days, on the 29th April 2014, I will be embarking on the first week of my Workhouse Diet, which will follow the 1797 inmates' diet. 


Astonishingly, even whilst reading that I would be drinking beer at breakfast time on this diet, the penny didn't drop that the beer would be replacing my usual double dose of tea.

Maybe it was a classic case of denial, but I had possession of that diet sheet for two whole weeks before the enormity and horror of the lack of tea situation truly struck me. 

When it did strike, it was like a terrible caffeine-free thunderbolt. I was thinking about how I'd miss biscuits, and dunking them, while on the diet (I love a dunked ginger knob:don't judge me). Then I suddenly gasped as I realised that there would be No Tea in which to dunk my No Biscuits.*

The reason is simple. In 1797, 'my' workhouse at Gressenhall near Dereham (link here) was known as a House of Industry. There, as in many other Parish Houses, they drank beer because the water wasn't safe. The teeny amount of alcohol in the 'small beer' or 'table beer' drunk twelve times a week by inmates was enough to kill the bugs. 

So why not drink tea? The boiling would, after all, also sterilise the water. The assumption is that tea was too expensive, but Peter Higginbotham's 'Workhouse Cookbook' (buy it here) tells us that in the 1790s, tea and sugar were regularly bought by labourers, so we can conclude that money was not the issue preventing workhouses serving tea to inmates. 

No, according to Higginbotham's research, the decision to restrict tea consumption was a moral judgement call. He says 'tea was often still viewed as a luxury the poor should do without'. He tells us that in some workhouses tea was only for the sick or elderly, and as late as 1899 a Scottish Board Official deemed that 'excessive tea-drinking by women accounts largely for the number of pauper lunatics'. 

There you have it: tea makes you go mad. It explains a lot. 

However, caffeine-withdrawal aside, I think I may just go mad without it. 

Sympathy now please.

*I've started weaning myself onto the low-caffeine green tea, which I find surprisingly acceptable, although it is no good for dunking. But then again, I thought I'd better wean myself off biscuits as well, so it's probably for the best.

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