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A nice cup of tea - how hard can it be?

The Local · 17 Nov 2009, 16:22

Published: 17 Nov 2009 16:22 GMT+01:00

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Sweden is not a country of tea-drinkers. Oh, they may think that they are, and they sure have a lot of tea around, but don't let appearances fool you. The strengths of the average Swede are many but none of them lie in, or anywhere near, the teapot.

Now I come from a tea-drinking land. When I walk into a cafe in Ireland and ask for "tea" I get just that: black tea. In a pot. With a jug of milk. As the universe and whoever might be in charge intended.

In much the same way, I can wander into a pub in the old country and ask for a pint and have it taken for granted that it is a pint of stout that I am after and not, for example, a pint of shampoo, or soup, or paint thinner. A pint I ask for, and a pint I duly receive.

But not here, and not with tea. If you are at a loose end in Stockholm you can try the following amusing jape: go into a cafe and ask for tea. When the staff enquire as to which tea you would like, you say "normal tea", and then watch their faces slowly contort in confusion and horror. To the Swedes, you see, tea does not come in "normal", only in many varying degrees of "abnormal".

That is the first problem: the selection. The average Swedish cafe prides itself on its vast acreage of tea blends: row upon row of shelving rising to the ceiling, all dedicated to obscure and mildly terrifying combinations of flowers, fruit, oils and grasses. In fact, I'm sure that most of the teas on offer have never been requested at all, and the jars are simply used to store old coins, buttons or the ashes of departed relatives. I mean, who can seriously want "rosebud, pear, rosemary and toadstool" or any other of the arcane combinations on offer?

The Swedes have also failed to grasp the concept of the teapot. Most tea is served by cramming the leaves into a little metal ball with fewer holes in it than the Swedish tax system, and then depositing this in a mug. Boiling (or more usually, warm) water is poured onto this in the hope that some of the water will trickle in and tease out the tasty tea particles inside. Just bring a good book, because this can take a while, if indeed it happens at all.

Of course, if you actually get presented with a mug or cup then you can count yourself lucky. Quite often in Sweden your tea will be served in a glass which, obviously, soon becomes too hot to lift. To overcome this the staff will often wrap a serviette around the now glowing glass before presenting it to you, instead of, say, using one of the six hundred solid coffee mugs sitting on a shelf within arm's reach.

On one particular occasion I watched a cafe worker first pour the milk, then insert the little tea ball, and then the boiling water. I stared, aghast, as my tepid tea struggled to life only to fail miserably. Helpfully, or so I thought at the time, I pointed this out to the cafe worker, only to have him frown at me as if I had just questioned his parentage and trodden on his dog. So I drank it up, tasteless brew that it was, and did not return again.

Few people in Sweden understand that you must brew tea with boiling water, and before you add the milk. Even people who drink tea every day have often never heard of this, and if they have, still treat it like a quaint superstition. But, seriously, you can't brew something in 60-degree water; you just make the water beige. And this is not, despite the belief of many, tea.

Now I am not a snob, but I do believe that if you offer something to be consumed, and take payment for it, then you should have some basic idea of how to serve and prepare it. That's all I'm asking. And the old excuse “but we are not a tea-drinking country” does not really work any more, not in the heady international mix of modern Sweden.

It would be like an Irish waitress claiming that she “doesn’t really get this coffee stuff” while delivering to you raw coffee beans floating in custard, served in an old boot. It just doesn't cut it.

But there are, thankfully, a few places in Stockholm where proper tea is served. There are several good tea shops, and many cafes and museums are starting to come up to speed too, offering actual cups, black tea leaves and, if the planets are properly aligned, even teapots.

And to further thrill the tea-lovers, there are also a few specialist cafes that offer classic English afternoon tea, complete with proper china cups, tiered cake stands and fluffy scones slathered with clotted cream and lemon curd.

Story continues below…

So things are definitely looking up on the tea front. But I won't get my hopes up quite yet, and will continue to carry a small emergency supply of proper tea-bags with me wherever I go in the Nordic realms.

Because when it comes to tea, you can never be too careful.

Paddy's tips: I have personally managed to find real tea in Stockholm at Afternoon Tea on Dalgatan 36, Classic Tea Room on Rörstrandsgatan 25, Chaikhana on Svartmansgatan 26 in Gamla Stan (the Old Town), plus the wonderfully airy cafe at the National Museum. And much more tea information than you could ever require, about Stockholm and everywhere else, can be found at the excellent Teatropolitan Times blog.

Paddy has been shipwrecked in Sweden since 1997. His musings and ramblings can be found here.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

22:42 November 17, 2009 by Nemesis
This is a good one.

Last year I tried to serve tea from a teapot to some swedes in my partment.

From there reaction, I may as well have tried to poison them.

I spent nesxt two hours tryting to explain that in Ireland and the UK a teapot is used to serve tea and that it is not a weapon, insult, etc.

I actually have an old large irish kettle/teapot that can hold about 15 litres in my storage. I am seriously considering using that the next time I have Swedish visitors:)
03:09 November 18, 2009 by joshthorne
I'm glad someone has finally had the courage to say this. I totally agree that asking for a cup of tea in Sweden is like asking for a Janssons Frestelse in the UK. I mean, even if you get potato gratin in front of you, it's still missing the anchovies and onion!
09:41 November 18, 2009 by Streja
Hmmm Swedes use teapots more than Brits actually. I grew up drinking tea like that.

In the UK I just get a cup with a teabag.
10:03 November 18, 2009 by "green Swede"
bullseye,sure ya can't beat the normal stuff,and it is true we did drink it from our baby's bottles when we were very young back home.I can't stand what I call the perfumed teas as I call them,and find an english breakfast or in my more adventerous moments,an earl grey to be the most similar to the teas back home.my three yr old already enjoys a daily cuppa although at this point it's more a matter of would you like a drop of tea with your milk? btw,you cant go wrong serving it in a teapot.
16:29 November 18, 2009 by Rick Methven
Funny thing is when we lived in the UK we used to bring Zoega coffee from Sweden as the coffee in the UK was insipid.

Now because it is hard to find decent tea in Sweden, we bring it over from the UK.

Each to their own
19:15 November 18, 2009 by Leyarah
I had to laugh when I read this article... it is soooo true.

I'm a Brit living and working in Malmö, I often see people going to get hot (not boiling) water and a tea bag, walking back to their desk and then putting the teabag in to the water!!! Its just totally unbelievable I keep joking with them that I will give them all a lesson in how to make a proper cup of tea :-)

However, I like the "fancy" flavours of tea and I am particularly fond of green tea... I have found that I can get a better choice of green teas here in Sweden than I could back at home...
21:03 November 18, 2009 by Soft Boiled
Great article! I always have a good supply of Tesco´s teabags around. I am always surprised at how swedes love real english tea made with real english teabags. I often give away my real english tea supply to my work colleagues with instructions on how to make a "proper cup of tea", i have even gained proper tea converts.

For those interested, you can now buy PG tips at some supermarkets in Stockholm, where as before only a handfull of indian shops sold them.
22:35 November 18, 2009 by Boris K.
How beautifully said!

I bow to you and I second your emotion!

03:22 November 19, 2009 by Davey-jo
It ain't difficult just boil the water, OK!

Even a stupid englishman can do it.
07:43 November 19, 2009 by Marc the Texan
"Most tea is served by cramming the leaves into a little metal ball with fewer holes in it than the Swedish tax system"

- I really liked that line. So true. It ain't easy being a tea drinking English boy growing up in Texas. Iced tea is the drink of choice in the lone star state, unfortunately.
11:00 November 19, 2009 by Doris79
Well, I'm a Swede and have always been a passionate tea drinker. After spending 5 years in the UK I totally agree with you on the brewing point - there the Swedes are lost. On the other hand it is also very annoying that you always get milk in your tea in the UK unless you ask not to. Tea is best drunk black and that is something Swedes have understood better than the Brits.
15:29 November 19, 2009 by joolzg
I ship tea from the UK whenever we run low, thats less that 1000 tea bags in the cupboard.

Its took 4 years but now my swedish wife has me make a nice cup of tea in the morning instead of her usual coffee.

Mission accomplished

22:20 November 19, 2009 by insect
Thank you for this article. I have been suffering alone with my tea issues. I dont drink coffee and when we are having a `fika´ I always decline because I know it will be just some warm water and a tea bag.


Try to check out the latest info on green tea. Apparently it contains some poisonous substance. I tend to stick to simple black tea (from Kenya)
09:55 November 20, 2009 by Nemesis
@ Rick Methven

I also do the same.

People go nuts for Swedish coffee back home. I got a Lorry driver to take 200kilo of Swedish Zoega back home for me. My uncle wanted 150 kilo of it, for his office. The rest went home to be distributed amongst family.

We get Zoega in Ireland, but it tastes terrible and is nothing like the coffee by the same brand in Sweden.

When in Ireland, I usually bring back about 5 to 8 kilo of tea bags with me in my lugguage. My Swedish friends go crazy for them, particularly after being shown how to make tea corrrectly with them .

Last night I converted an office in Öskarshamn to making tea corrrectly, while waiting for my friend to finish work. They have seen the light, or the boiling water to be exact.
13:43 November 20, 2009 by Neil the Wheel
Ha Ha! But the tea in Sweden was magnificent compared to what the Germans do to it.
14:12 November 20, 2009 by Nemesis
@ Neil the Wheel

The Germans sell something called tea, but I am not sure what it actually is.
21:15 November 20, 2009 by Dhyana
I am a tea drinker, and the enemy (coffe drinking Swedish folk) is all around me. At work, I have become codependent and keep brewing liters upon liters of coffee every day, for without it, my colleagues won't function. But teabags here are not that great either. Best are real leaves, and water that's boiling hot for some teas but slightly cooled for others. The teapot I use at work was bought at a delightful little shop at Norrtullsgatan in Stockholm (www.inthemoodfortea.se). One can buy good teas there. Thehuset Danielsson at Kungsgatan is well-stocked too. Each time I visit Stockholm, I buy kilograms of tea!
00:25 November 21, 2009 by Lys
This is a great article. Funny and true. Especially the part about putting the milk in before the tea. Or they add the milk directly after the tea leave holder (do those things have a name?) then hand it to you with the tea leave holder still in the cup!

Meanwhile... I have this theory that people either like english breakfast or earl grey. I personally can't stand earl grey because I think it tastes like dish washing liquid. Does anyone else find this? It seems like every Swede I have met prefers earl grey...?
09:32 November 21, 2009 by LazyDog
@ Lys

The first cup of tea i got in Sweden was earl grey. Yuk what's this? i asked, its tea they said. OK never tasted tea like this before i replied lol. Its typical english tea they said. I have been here 35 years now and my Mum bless her still sends me loose tea "Typhoo". Its worth every penny.
10:31 November 21, 2009 by Stylewalla
A man after my own heart. I just spent 10 days in the US and didn't get one decent cup of tea anywhere, including the best hotels and $40 room service. What will it take? Finally scored some Twinings English Breakfast t-bags (not the best, but needs must) at the JFK British Airways lounge, warmed my cup at leisure, and made myself the perfect cup of tea. And several more, and pocketed half a dozen t-bags for the plane home. There are two things we don't forgive at home - lousy rice and lousy tea. Thanks, I am not alone.
15:04 November 23, 2009 by livinginsweden
Its funny to read the above comments .... as if they really know how to brew and drink tea...... as if they are tea connoisseurs ..... well here is a link to a better written article on drinking tea ... and it is still not the best article ....


ha ha
15:55 November 23, 2009 by spongepaddy

I think everybody can claim to know how to DRINK tea, at least. And I (who wrote this article) don't claim to be a tea connoisseur either - in fact it sounds rather boring. But I do like well-made tea made by people with some level of interest in the process.

Just as I like a nice wine but don't really need to know which flowers it reminds some French dude of.
18:46 November 24, 2009 by Alannah
Very entertaining :-) I'm Irish too ... I drink my tea black when out of Ireland, but when home for Christmas add the milk again!

Have you tried Vetekatten, close to Drottninggatan ..they are supposed to do a pretty decent afternoon tea! There's also afternoon tea at the Grand Hotel, probably a bit on the pricey side but ...
15:45 January 16, 2010 by Knug Olaf
Fun post!

This is like I wandered around London a couple of months ago trying to find a cup of filtered coffee. It was almost impossible. The answer to my humble request was always "sorry, we don't serve coffee", "all our coffee is espresso-based", or "you can have an americano, it tastes almost the same".
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