Tea Or Coffee?

by David Sugarman

There’s a deadly dull programme on French TV at breakfast-time on Saturdays and Sundays called Thé ou Café, a tedious, funereally paced hour-long celeb profile and interview that saps you of the will to live. Take my word for it: watch the Japanese cartoons or teleshopping on all the other channels, they’re far more rewarding. This dreary yawnfest is called Thé ou Café for the simple reason that each edition starts with the presenter asking the guest that most profound, incisive and psychologically revealing of questions: do you prefer tea or coffee? Freud and Jung, you should be living at this hour…

Give the French their due, they do know how to make coffee. It’s hard to imagine the odours of France without the pungent smell of espresso. At breakfast-time, though, they have developed the curious practice of dunking their jam-smothered baguette in it. Anyone who has spent much time in France, especially staying with a French family, will have observed this, although surely not tried it. You see the familiar sight of bowls on the breakfast table and look around for the boxes of cornflakes, Weetabix or… oh no, is this a muesli household? But no, there are usually no cereals. Instead, coffee is solemnly poured into the cereal bowls which you have to hold up to your mouth with two hands to slurp your coffee from. You then smear your baguette with jam, and enthusiastically dunk it in your coffee. And this is the country of cordon bleu gastronomy?

But at least the coffee resembles coffee. Which is more than you can say for the tea. The 21 miles between France and England never feel longer than when you could kill for a cuppa. Why the French have so little appreciation of the point and purpose of a cup of tea will always remain a mystery to me. All too often waiters in cafés are clearly not au fait with the mechanics of the tea-brewing process. They have small teapots albeit with ill-fitting lids; they have teabags (Lipton Yellow wouldn’t be my choice, mind you); and they have the means of producing scalding hot water. What could possibly go wrong? Well, they bring you the wonky teapot two-thirds full of tepid water, with the teabag still in a paper wrapper beside it, that’s what goes wrong. But it can get worse: order a thé au lait and a fair number of cafés will produce a small jug of hot milk for you to pour into their apology for tea

Buying decent teabags in France is pretty much a lost cause, of course. When Marks & Spencer closed down their French operations in 2001, it was an event of near-catastrophic proportions for many British tea-drinkers in France, who were forced to adopt complex strategies for teabag-acquisition missions to supermarkets across the Channel, or lean heavily on friends visiting from Blighty. Most tea on French supermarket shelves should be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act (or, as we call it here, Directive européenne 2005/29/CE dite Pratiques commerciales déloyales). Especially so-called “English Breakfast Tea”: it’s a no on all three counts! There is just one variety, called “Thé corsé”, that can produce a good, full-bodied brew. It’s exorbitant, but cheaper than a cross-Channel ferry when you run out…

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