Monthly Archives: November 2012

Christmas in the UK

Since Thanksgiving just passed (here in the US) it is now, officially,  the start of the Christmas season. I thought it would be the perfect time to talk about the different traditions in the UK vs US. Because, what the hell is Boxing Day, right?

A note on Thanksgiving: they don’t have it in the UK. Thanksgiving was originally a breaking of bread between the Pilgrims and Native Americans ‘sharing’ land and enjoying the bounty of a successful harvest (mostly thanks to the Native Americans). There’s no reason why it would be celebrated in the UK.

The only downside I can see to not having Thanksgiving is not having a consensus on when the Christmas season starts. Here in the US, Christmas is all we talk about from the day after Thanksgiving until December 25th.  Or it’s certainly the only reason we shop.  A huge upside, however, is a lack of Black Friday related deaths. Have I mentioned on this blog (don’t know why I would have) that I hate Black Friday?

So, the main event. Christmas!

Christmas Eve is not as big of an event in the UK as here in the US. There might be some carol singing, or a trip to the pub to spend time with friends.  That’s about it. The big deal is Christmas Day.

I did hear an interesting factoid: instead of milk and cookies, sherry and mince pies are left out for Father Christmas.  Also, sometimes carrots are left out for his reindeer–why didn’t I ever think of this as a child!?

It’s the same religion, so the basic tenets of the holiday are the same.  Jesus’ supposed birthday, combined with the pagan Winter Solstice traditions to create an amalgam of seasonal and religious imagery and confusion. There are still presents, awkward and annoying family conversations, and there is still the over-consumption of food (especially sweets) and wine.

What are the differences?

Santa Claus is called Father Christmas

-though I imagine with the proliferation of American movies, everyone knows who you’re talking about when you say Santa Claus. Also, in most cases Father Christmas is not chubby, but thin. Legend has it that robins would watch your behavior and report back to him to help him make his naughty or nice list.  Some people argue that the two are distinct mythological figures, but honestly how many fake Christmas visitors does one person need?

.

The food is quite different, I believe. We tend to sort of have Thanksgiving part deux, but of course they don’t have Thanksgiving, and their traditional food is quite different from ours. They serve a big Christmas dinner with lots of Brussels sprouts  and there is always a Christmas pudding.  Those are huge brandy-soaked concoctions sure to give you diabetes. They usually look something like this:

I’ve read there is some controversy about this dish, but according to the ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner equation, it is necessary. I’ve heard some people say how much they hate them (like fruitcake) but it doesn’t seem like Christmas dinner without one.  Of course, in a place like the UK, with a massive immigrant/not-naturalized population, there is an active shift going on in terms of Christmas traditions, and the celebration of Christmas at all.  Like the US tradition of Jewish people eating Chinese food on Christmas, I imagine there are a lot of Indian restaurants frequented by the non-religious, non-traditional, non-culinary members of society.  But, this isn’t a post about changing traditions around a new demographic makeup, it’s a post about the ‘traditional’ traditions, so here’s the damn Christmas pudding. They also have something called Christmas Cake, which is just like fruitcake, only they seem to have the sense to cover it in icing.

If you’ve ever seen Bridget Jones’ Diary and heard her talk about eating ’42 mince pies’, and then wondered wtf a mince pie is, I am here to solve this epic mystery.  A mince pie is a mini pie stuffed with savory meat and fruits and coated in powdered sugar.  It sounds like the most disgusting thing in the world to me, but I’m a vegetarian so my opinion should not be trusted on this matter. Still, the combination of savory and sweet is creepy to me, like that time Rachel on Friends made a parfait with ground beef in it.  But, it is very popular in the UK, so there must be something good about it. Actually, I’ve seen two different bits of info about the mince pie; one indicates it has actual mince meat in it, the other indicates just using beef fat added to the dried fruits and spices. The latter would be far more palatable, so I hope that is more common.

At Christmas Dinner, they always have crackers.  Not the Ritz kind, but this kind:

They’re so named because of the ‘crack’ they make when pulled apart. They usually contain some sort of paper crown or hat, a joke, and a small gift. People who have read Harry Potter are pretty familiar with the concept.

Outside of the Christmas meal, there are the presents (which tend to be less extravagant than in the US) and time spent with family.  The great thing about the UK: it’s pretty small. You don’t really have a good excuse not to get home for the holidays if it’s only a few hours by train from anywhere to anywhere else–people who live in Cornwall or John O’Groats, I realize that it’s not a few hours from everywhere to everywhere else, but before you argue with me consider the relative size of the UK vs the US and you will get my point). I think there’s more of an emphasis on Christmas as an event in the UK, and less an emphasis on Christmas as the time of year we spend all our money on gifts.

Nativity plays are much more common there. See Love Actually‘s final half hour for more info.  Children recreate the birth of Jesus.  I think those have gone out of fashion in schools here because public schools aren’t permitted to celebrate religious events.  In the UK, many more of the schools have a specific religious affiliation, and there is technically no separation of church and state outlined in their laws. So where we have the nativity scenes outside of churches, they have the plays in schools every year. Carol singers are also more common, traveling from house to house to sing.  I remember doing this when I was 10-15 years old, but I grew up in the Midwest.  I cannot imagine anyone doing it here in Philly, especially if they valued their lives. Also, every Christmas there is the Queen’s speech, which I imagine the more traditional people still listen to/watch every year (I imagine a lot of grandparents force their kids to listen/watch).

So, what the hell is Boxing Day?

The story says that wealthy families would indulge in massive Christmas feasts.  The next day, they would pack up the leftovers and distribute them to their servants. Another theory on the beginning of the tradition is that priests would pick this day to empty the alms boxes and distribute the contents to the poor. Boxing Day is (traditionally) December 26th, and is always a national holiday in the UK (and some Commonwealth nations).

Modern traditions for Boxing Day include recovering from the Christmas festivities, lots of online shopping, and giving money/gifts to charities and to tradespeople (milkmen, postmen, paper boys, etc.). Families spend the day together.

Other tidbits:

Traditionally the greeting there was ‘Happy Christmas’ rather than ‘Merry Christmas’, though I believe that’s less true now.

There is still a law on the books saying that every Brit must attend church on Christmas Day, and cannot arrive by motorized transport.  Only 13% of Brits reported attending a Christmas service every year, so I don’t think this one is enforced!

Most of this focuses on English traditions, what about the rest of the UK?

In Scotland, there is a specific New Years’ Eve tradition called Hogmanay. This was originally a festival devoted to fire, and there are still bonfires and the like, all rooting from Viking and Pagan traditional beliefs.  Mostly, though, it’s a big street party (though who would want to party in freezing cold Scotland in the middle of winter is beyond me. I suppose that’s where the fire comes in?)  Traditionally, Christmas was not a very important holiday in Scotland, so Hogmanay was the best opportunity the Scots had to relieve the winter Cabin Fever and need to drink and be merry.
There’s still a big festival every year.

In Wales, Boxing Day is called St. Stephen’s Day and was traditionally the only day of the year it was okay to kill a wren.  So children would stone them to death, like St. Stephen was stoned to death, then parade about the streets with the dead bird in tow.  Fun.  Now, I believe a fake bird is used.  But a less horrifying tradition coming from Wales is mistletoe! The Welsh were the first to associate mistletoe with Christmas, and the tradition of kissing under it started in the UK.

In Northern Ireland, things get a bit complicated. The Catholics would traditionally attend a midnight Mass on Christmas.  I’m not certain if Anglicans did this as well–if you’re reading this and know the answer, please comment!

So, those are the basics.  An important thing to know about the UK and Christmas–even though it is an undeniably religious holiday, the UK is far more secular than the US in general (except N. Ireland).  People rank religion far less important to their lives, especially in England.  Christmas remains more of a cultural holiday where traditions are followed because they are comforting, as opposed to one steeped in religious meaning.  Sounds like all of my Christmases, but for some of the really religious I suppose it could come as a surprise that God doesn’t play more of a part in the proceedings.

Movie Review: Four Weddings and a Funeral

Amazingly, I had never seen this movie until last week. I do remember the fervor for it when it first opened in the US, which was a ludicrous 18 years ago, but I believe it actually predates my anglophilia, which is (approximately) circa 2001. I remember not wanting to see it because I really dislike Andie MacDowell (still do) and Hugh Grant wasn’t famous yet. Also, I was about 13 when this came out, so it was not on my top ten list. I remember the Lion King being more my speed at the time. Forrest Gump, if I was feeling philosophical, or not in the mood to weep over Mufasa’s terrible death scene.

I digress! The point is, I just missed out on this movie, and finally decided to get my shit together and watch it.  Even despite Andie MacDowell, I really enjoyed it!

The plot mostly follows Charles (Hugh Grant), who is your typical Hugh Grant character, X 1000. He bumbles, he mumbles, he charms.  He meets Carrie (Andie MacDowell) at the first wedding, and is smitten immediately.

In a way very reminiscent of Love Actually or Notting Hill, the film also focuses on Grant’s group of close and quirky friends. These include:

Kristin Scott Thomas as Fiona, a bit of an ice queen,

gay couple Gareth and Matthew,

the oddball female character, Scarlett (see Penny from Notting Hill)

and a few others on the fringe of the action.  It’s a sense of an ensemble cast, which the British seem to do so well in film (and TV) without anyone feeling 1-dimensional or flat.

The plot is sort of the typical romantic comedy fare in the beginning–boy and girl meet, girl is taken, boy declares his love too late, girl changes her mind and they end up together.  But it’s also very different.

Take Carrie, the female lead.  At one point in the action she lists her thoughts on her 30+ sexual partners.  Can you see Reese Witherspoon doing that in a  modern RomCom and not being considered a slut? My favorite part of this is that she is not in any way ashamed or embarrassed of her list, and treats every one of the men as a learning experience, even if it wasn’t a pleasant sexual experience. Carrie is somewhat lacking in depth, as we usually only see her through Charles’ interactions with her.  What we do see, though, is someone really confident, independent, and lacking regret.  So I really like that, because fuck the typical women in these movies. They are terrible.

Also, how often does a RomCom focus on a male lead over the female? After all, if you live by the Sex and the City idea of life, women feel incomplete without a man, but men feel just fine regardless.

Two of the eponymous weddings are those of Charles and Carrie–to other people.  That is a bit of a surprise; definitely not in the typical RomCom formula.  Even more shocking, and perhaps my favorite part of the movie, is that the two declare their love at the end of the movie and then decide not to get married.  Ever.  In a movie so clearly focused on matrimony, the two couples who don’t get married–Charles and Carrie and Gareth and Matthew–are the most compelling in many ways.

These little moments and touches make me like this movie a lot more than I would if it was a typical RomCom. There’s something really refreshing about a love story that subverts your expectations, especially in a genre that so rigidly follows a very specific blueprint.

In fact, it’s almost like they are playing with those genre specifics, having multiple weddings and chances to enact the famous ‘If any person knows of any reason why these two should not be wed’ trope that happens in all of those movies. Having the female lead actually go through with marrying another man.

The movie takes place during big life events–weddings and funerals–but everything about the story relies on subtlety.  Charles slowly makes the change from a ‘serial monogamist’ to ready to commit (in part because he loses hope in the idea of true love) to, by the end, a self-awareness that allows him to pursue a path that will truly make him happy.

In addition to what is a very adult version of a RomCom, the film is also moving (funeral scene made me weep) and alternately extremely funny.  Highlights include Rowan Atkinson playing a bumbling Anglican priest, Hugh Grant’s speech as best man, the repeated scenes of Charles and flatmate Scarlett waking up very late for each of the four ceremonies, and Carrie going through her recount of bedfellows.

Another reason to watch is the ’90s fashion and the ludicrous hats the English wear to church. Why do they do this? Why do they still do this? I may have to do a future post about this millinery tradition.

Movie Review: Skyfall

I have to say that Bond is not my favorite franchise.  It’s obviously quite different from Downton Abbey or Pride and Prejudice, which is the sort of stuff I love.  But, I have now seen four James Bond movies, so I feel okay reviewing this one. I am, by no means, a James Bond aficionado considering I’ve never seen one of the Sean Connery films, so please don’t write me angry emails if I make some mistake about the franchise as a whole.

In case you’re wondering, the four Bond films I have seen are the latest three with Daniel Craig–Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and now Skyfall, plus one Pierce Brosnan film, for which I would like my two hours back.

And now, in looking up the name of that terrible movie, I realize I have seen five Bond films.  I saw both Die Another Day and The World is Not Enough. So, I would like my 4 hours back. Those were some of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Junior.

I saw the three Daniel Craig movies mostly due to my boyfriend–I suspect this accounts for approximately 80% of female Bond movie-going.  Correct me if I’m wrong about that.  Anyway, I was actually pleasantly surprised because no one was jumping out of a plane and onto a motorcycle and then onto a different plane that then blew up an aircraft carrier before becoming a submarine.  Now, there were still moments of ridiculousness in each of the movies, and they are, none of them, my cup of tea.  But, the Daniel Craig versions are much more realistic, gritty, believable, and have a modicum of character behind all the explosions. To combat this, they seem to be making the explosions bigger, but whatever you have to do to sell tickets, I guess.

Skyfall is a really unusual Bond film, in my limited experience.  It starts out with your typical Bond fare. There are car/motorcycle chase scenes, a should-be-fatal injury, several exotic locales, some sex with a nameless woman (who actually has no dialogue). There is flirting on the job, a casino, villains with eccentric pets.  Everything Mike Myers mocked in Austin Powers.

But then it saves itself from the pattern. How?

First of all, there are some actual characters that reveal themselves to have true complexity. Bond is seen as old and out of shape (as out of shape as Daniel Craig can believably portray) in parts of this film, and there is the general sense that the MI-6 program is coming under attack in a world that sees it as outdated.  M (Judi Dench) is particularly great at portraying a commanding woman of the old order, struggling to maintain control in a world that doesn’t understand the need for her.

Second of all, the villain! Javier Bardem is truly terrifying in this. He is sort of your typical Bond villain in that he is unhinged, very smart and capable, and eccentric bordering on crazy.  And he wears crazy outfits and has ridiculous hair.

He subverts villain expectations by being attracted to Bond.  And, to Bond’s credit, he does not fall into the typical alpha male response of being horrified and grossed out, as an American action hero might be.  Picture this scene with Bruce Willis in Craig’s place and you get a very different outcome.

His motivations are comprehensible, without a ridiculous ‘I’m going to kill you so I will now explain my big plans to you’ moment.  He uses computers to accomplish most of his evil tasks, and his criminal enterprise is a really well-oiled machine.

He toes the line between functionally evil and psychologically unstable, which is just about the most terrifying combination of personality types.

We also see aspects of Bond that make him more believable and more human. I suspect some purists wont like this, and I’ve already seen internet mutterings about the movie veering away from Ian Fleming’s books. Like it or not, making Bond more of a person made the movie better.  We see his family home, we see him tired, we see him drunk.  We see him struggle, and we see him break down with emotion.

I think it was a huge step up for a Bond film, and miles away from the shite of the Brosnan era. I must ask, though, was I the only one who was having Home Alone flashbacks in the scenes at Skyfall? All the booby traps to get the invaders? Significantly more violent booby traps, but I started to see the baddies as Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci, bumbling in and around the house until they were all injured or dead.  But the ending brought me around again, and I find I was pleasantly surprised. I really enjoyed the film!

Downton Abbey, Season Three

Since this season doesn’t air in the US until January, please consider everything I say in this post to be hearsay and thoughts gleaned and paraphrased from others who watched the show in a totally legal fashion.

First, I’m going to start out with a few things that are non-spoilers:

Primarily, I must say that the season started out rather weak. Perhaps my expectations of Shirley MacLaine were too high? Her character was sort of flat and one-dimensional, as far as I’m concerned.  The first 2-3 episodes were very disappointing, and I was really worried they were indicative of the series as a whole. But then it turned around. Episode 3 (I think it was) was the best episode they’ve had in a long time, and the rest of the season was full of good moments, great stuff from the Dowager Countess, and some scenes that made me weep.  I thought it was a really strong end to the season, and almost met the quality of season 1. It definitely surpassed the second season, in my opinion.

Okay, from here on out, there be spoilers:
.

.

.

This is me politely allowing a gap between non-spoilery and spoilery content.

.

.

Okay, to business!

As I said above, I thought episodes 1 and 2 were pretty dreadful. The will-they-wont-they-of-course-they-will rubbish with Mary and Matthew pre-wedding was a huge snooze.  Of course they will! Before I even realized I was supposed to be worked up about it, they were already married.  They’ve ceased being interesting and are now just tiresome.

I think sometimes my annoyance with the show is that they drag on issues that have no inherent tension, and the really tense moments are generally over in one episodes’ time.  There’s a terrible sense of pacing.

The money storyline is a good example of this. It was tedious; it was also the only thing that encompassed every episode of the season.  Other issues came and went, but the money was the big one.  Can I say I totally agree with Cora’s mom that enough money from that family has already been wasted by Lord Grantham?  And what is his brilliant plan for the place? To call that American, Charles Ponzi, who can guarantee a big return in a few weeks’ time.  So he’s a real genius when it comes to finance, but he attacks everyone who tries to help or suggest change because he is so insecure about it.  It drove me crazy.  I find that Lady Grantham (the dowager countess, that is) is much better at embracing change than Lord Grantham, which is ludicrous.  And poor Matthew, who was hoping to downsize and lead a simpler life after his marriage (man did he marry the wrong girl for that) instead ends up running the huge Downton estate.

I know that Downton is necessary for the show but that doesn’t mean I agree that it should stay as it is. Were I alive at the time, I would have thought it better to embrace the times and get out of the agricultural money-owning ways of the 19th century and into a more modern frame of mind. Just because the incredible good luck of the Grantham family has allowed them to live like kings for 100s of years does not mean the world owes them. The world does not give out alimony, and current prosperity is no guarantee of the same in future.

So the money situation made me totally uninterested, despite Lord Grantham’s blustering.  But the big, game changing issue of the season–Sybil and Tom.

Can I describe how much I cried? Sybil was the only one of those three sisters I didn’t loathe. I adored her, in fact, whereas Mary is entertaining for her bitchiness and Edith is boring as always (in my opinion) So I was none-too-pleased with this turn, though I am happy Tom will be staying at Downton.  I love Tom.

I had a love-hate relationship with a lot of this season.  The characters enchanted, then disappointed me in turn.  Carson was adorable when concerned about Mrs. Hughes, but repugnant in his later dealings with Thomas (I don’t care if it is accurate to the period, it’s awful. I can’t take my modern sensibilities out of the equation, and I hated listening to it). Alfred was bungling and charming at first, and then nauseating in the final few episodes (mostly due to his dealings with Thomas). Edith won my pity at her not-wedding, my affection when she decided to write the newspaper column against her father’s and grandmother’s advice, and then my irritation again by the end of the series.  After all, she spent a few episodes last season snogging a married farmer, so how is she repulsed by some casual flirting by a married editor? Pot, kettle, etc.

The problem with Fellowes’ characters is they are all drawn black or white.  Sometimes they will slide toward the middle, but most of the time they exist on the edges.  I don’t mean necessarily their moral leanings, because Bates, for example, lives very much in the gray.  It’s more that what we are supposed to feel for them is very black and white.  We are supposed to hate O’Brien in this season, and pity Thomas.  Last season it was the opposite.  I feel weirdly abused by this all-or-nothing evil always resonating from one or the other.  Matthew is always valorous and honorable. Edith is always going to suffer from middle-child syndrome.

There’s a difference between creating characters that can be comprehended as fitting into a recognizable personality type and writing characters that are the trope. It makes their behavior predictable, and that makes me bored.

What I do think is interesting about Fellowes’ writing is that the most compelling characters are usually on the periphery of the plot line.  Some examples: Thomas’ reaction to Lady Sybil’s death. Carson’s fears over Mrs. Hughes’ health. The Downton ladies refusing to leave Violet’s brunch after Robert storms in.  I think one of the advantages of this era, and the upstairs, downstairs mentality of this era is that there are always people adjacent to the story.  There are just so many people involved when you have family and staff living in one house.  This provides lots of opportunities for people to overhear and to discover what they shouldn’t know.  Add to this the fact that it was a very private time in an already reserved society. Secrets were important and hard to keep.  There are a lot of instances where this is taken advantage of in Downton Abbey and I think those are the instances where the show is the most affective.

One final note.  That young girl in the final episode was boring and her running off was completely and utterly predictable.  It ruined the final episode and I pray that they never have her on again.  On the other hand, I truly enjoyed the Dowager Countess’ uncanny ability to trick absolutely everyone into telling the truth.  For that only, it was worth it to have her on. But please, don’t bring her back!

The British Beverage: Tea

Anyone that has ever had tea at an American restaurant might wonder what the fuss is all about.  Those Lipton tea bags they give out

with cups of boiling water are about as flavorful as the box they come in.  They are truly awful.  If my experience with tea was limited to this variety, I might wonder wtf the British are thinking, drinking so much of the stuff.  But there are two problems with this tea: 1-it’s not really tea and 2-you’re not making it right.  It tastes nothing like a real proper cuppa, as anyone who’s had one can tell you.

Ironically, they have the opposite problem in the UK.  If you go into most pubs and (assuming you don’t want a pint) ask for a cup of coffee, what they are going to give you is Nescafe.  They take the instant coffee powder and dissolve it in water.  That’s it.  It’s the same problem we have with tea.  1-Nescafe is not coffee, 2-they’re not making it right.  Of course there are places in either country to get a proper cup of tea/coffee, but I just want to clear up a misconception to anyone reading this (who wasn’t aware).  People in the US–Lipton is not representative of a good cup of tea.  People in the UK–Nescafe is not representative of a good cup of coffee.

Okay, so let’s talk about tea, because this is a British blog (and also I don’t like coffee).  First, some history.

Tea was first introduced to the UK in the 17th century.  It was available in ‘coffee houses’ which attracted an almost entirely male customer base. They were the sort of place to read, debate, play chess, etc.  The government tried to ban them for a time because of the revolutionary nature of the clients.  But consumption was quite small, until Catherine of Braganza, the wife of King Charles II advocated tea as a ladies drink, and a drink for the upper classes.  She was from Portugal, which meant she had had more exposure to the drink in her homeland, and she was also a teetotaler, and wanted to offer a beverage that didn’t contain alcohol. As the royals do, the upper classes do soon after.  Tea consumption rose among the very rich.

To please the king and his wife, the English East India Company brought gifts of tea for Catherine in the 1660s, but the Company did not import tea on a large scale because there wasn’t enough demand. They began trading in tea in the 1680s.  Eventually, the drink caught on so ferociously that it replaced textiles as the number one import from China.

At this time, both coffee and tea were growing in popularity, but tea eclipsed coffee soon after.  Many theories exist as to why, so I imagine it was a combination of factors.  People say drinking tea was more patriotic, since tea was produced in areas controlled by the British Empire, but I’m not certain this is true because at the time tea was produced in China, and production did not move to India and Sri Lanka until later on (correct me if I’m wrong on this, internet).  I think it was more practical concerns that made tea more popular.  For one thing, coffee was only available from areas of modern-day North Africa and the Arabian peninsula–there was a far more limited supply compared with the vast lands of China.  For another thing, as strange as this sounds to us now, tea could be re-used.  Often the aristocracy would buy the tea, use it, and then the used tea leaves would be dried, packed, and resold to less wealthy families.  The flavor of the tea is not necessarily harmed by re-using it, but it would have to steep longer to achieve the same strength.  Compared to an extremely weak cup of coffee, a weak cup of tea is at least still drinkable.  Imagine re-using coffee grounds and you’ll see the difference. Also, less tea is required for one cup than coffee grounds for one cup of coffee.  It was cheaper all around.

At first, green tea was the most popular among the Brits–probably because it was/is most popular in China.  Smugglers and traders began to add sawdust, sand, etc. to their tea to cut it (similar to drug dealers today) and increase their profits, so perhaps the switch to black tea was partly to avoid these practices.  No matter what the reason, black tea is the tea, as far as the British are concerned.  (Another indication that the Lipton tea is not actually tea–it says nothing about black tea, green tea, or specific varieties contained within.  It just says ‘tea’.)

Twinings started the first ladies’ tea shop in 1717, and tea shops cropped up throughout the UK after that. Twinings was also the first to start creating specific tea blends.  My personal favorite tea in the world is English Breakfast Blend, for example.  Specific tea leaves are used to create a specific flavor, like a recipe.  This is very important, because if you try five different black tea leaves you will taste a big difference.

Enough history. How do you make a good ‘cuppa’?

A bit about the equipment:

You’ve got your kettle. Water goes in this and it goes on the stove.  Also good for making oatmeal or hot chocolate.  Some people also have electric versions (very popular in Europe, actually).

Your cups.  I just use coffee cups (usually with some sort of Harry Potter design on them).  Listen, fancy people might have porcelain or silver teacups and saucers. I am not a fancy person. I drink out of coffee cups because that’s what I have, and the bigger cups allow you to have more tea.  Win/Win. Plus, who has room for coffee cups and tea cups and saucers? Fancy people, I guess.

There are infusers:

or strainers:

More on these later.

And, of course, the TEA.  For this, I am talking the proper loose leaf tea.  What? Tea comes in leaves? I know, right? I had never seen tea that wasn’t in bag form until I was 20-something.  Who knew.  But look how different it looks:

I know, it looks like a bunch of sticks.  Well, it’s leaves. What do you expect?

So, why is it important to get tea loose leaf tea?

Lots of reasons.  Think of it this way–with loose leaf tea you can see exactly what you’re getting.  You can make sure there’s no sawdust or sand in it, obviously, which is very important in modern times.  But the best tea comes from the big full leaves. Prices on tea used to be based on the size of the leaf, because the richest flavor comes from the biggest leaves. When you get a tea bag, the pieces inside are the smallest, worst quality leaves, or something called tea dust.  Also, something about the tea in tea bags (more surface area, maybe?) allows more of the bitterness of the tannins (if you want to be all technical about it) to come through, and the taste is noticeably different. Another problem is that tea bags don’t give the tea enough room to expand–the space is vital to the actual steeping process.

Of course, it’s very common for tea bags to be used, even in the UK, to make it just …more convenient.  The paraphernalia is a bit tiresome, with the kettle, the infusers, the strainers. I get it. I use tea bags at work (Twinings’ Darjeeling is my favorite), because try as I might, I haven’t been able to find a portable tea strainer that really works.

Tea at restaurants:

If you go to a high tea or just get tea at breakfast from a UK restaurant it’s a bit different than what you might logistically do at home.  They have a specific process:

They boil the water in the back, fill a small teapot with the leaves and add the water. They generally steep it for a few minutes before they bring it out to you.  You then pour it through the provided strainer and into your cup. The leaves stay in the strainer or in the pot, and don’t get into your cup.

You can then add milk, sugar, lemon, whatever you like.  Purists say you should add milk and then tea, but I’m not a purist. I imagine these people as the tea drinking equivalent of oenophiles and their rules about wine glasses and earthy bouquets.  I have never noticed a difference in milk first or tea first, but give it a try yourself.

I actually think restaurant tea tastes better than what I make, but at home, it’s a bit of a pain to have a kettle that you put on the stove (the kind that whistles) and a teapot to brew the tea. I’m not up for all that dish-washing.  Here’s how I do it:

I take my kettle, fill it with water (usually just enough for my tea and some oatmeal). I put it on the stove and it boils in 2-3 minutes.  During that time, I take my tea infuser out and put tea in it.  I use an infuser from Adagio (pictured above), which is also where I buy my tea.  Their English breakfast is amazing. But I digress.  You generally want 1 tsp tea leaves for 1 cup. I tend to make cups that are quite big, so I use roughly 2 teaspoons worth.

When the water boils, you take it off the heat and pour the required amount into the infuser.  Some people will tell you that you need to keep the water at boiling temperature during steeping, but I’ve never noticed a difference.  Black tea steeps 3-5 minutes, depending on how strong you want it. Green tea steeps at a slightly lower temperature and usually only for 2-3 minutes. Then you pour it into your tea-cup/coffee mug.  My infuser has a built-in filter that lets the tea seep through and the leaves remain for easy clean-up.  Very convenient.  Add milk, sugar, or lemon (to the tea, not the infuser, obviously) and you’re done.

Of course, I realize this is still quite a bit of work.  If you choose to use a strainer at home, a bit of advice: do not overfill the strainer. The tea leaves need space to expand and release their flavors.  Give them enough room, and steep for longer if you have trouble making a strong enough cup of tea.

There are tons of websites that give great advice on tea brewing, including specifics about time and temperature for specific brews (greens should be steeped a bit differently than blacks, for example). Here are a few:

Tea.co.uk

Adagio

For information on the controversial milk, lemon, or sugar debate, see this website

A great English restaurant in the US can give you a taste of some real tea.  My favorite is Tea & Sympathy in Greenwich Village (NYC)

A few last hints, tips, and tricks:

-If you choose tea bags for their convenience, do not leave the tea bag in the cup.  Why do Americans do this? Only Americans do it, I believe, and it’s really strange.  The tea will stop releasing good flavors as the water cools, but it will continue to make the cup more bitter and astringent as it sits.  Steep it for the 2-3 or 3-5 minutes depending on the type of tea, and then take it out.

-Shop online. That’s the best way to get good tea. Some websites even have tea bags made with good loose leaf tea inside, or tea bags you can assemble yourself with the tea of your choice.

-Anything that comes out of a Keurig or similar instant machine bears no resemblance to tea.

-If you run out of milk, do not use creamer.  Ever. Casein (a protein component of some dairy products) is part of what makes milk a great match for tea, and creamer doesn’t have casein.  It will just make your tea taste congealed and awful.  Don’t do it.

-Tea actually has a different effect on your body than coffee.  While the caffeine in coffee increases stress responses, the caffeine in tea keeps you awake without any anxiety. It’s soothing.  It also has a ton of health benefits.  So try it!

-Tea goes best with biscuits–that’s British for cookies! Smart people have realized this and sell the perfect accouterments:

TV Show Review: BBC America’s gritty crime drama, Copper

I debated whether to review this show or not.  I went back and forth.  It’s on BBC America, so…that almost automatically qualifies it to be on the blog, right?  On the other hand, it takes place entirely in America with zero British characters.  Well that’s a problem.

The actors are a mixed group.  The lead, Tom Weston-Jones is British, as is Anastasia Griffith.  Other actors were Canadian, Ghanian, Irish, plus whatever Franka Potente is, besides adorable.  German, isn’t she?  So none of that is much good, although it all has a very United Colors of Benetton feel to it.  The show creators are not British.  It’s shot in Canada.

So perhaps it doesn’t fit on this blog, but I’m going to review it anyway because it is on BBC America, and it gives me a chance to talk about the channel and how they seem to be shifting.  This show is entirely American, and other shows seem to be more catered to Americans lately.  Another example is Richard Hammond’s Crash Course, created specifically for an American audience, it didn’t air in the UK until months after it aired here.

Copper is BBC America’s first original scripted show.  I can see why Copper makes a good fit for exploration into scripted shows for BBC America.  It’s a period drama, which is what the BBC does better than anyone else.  It’s not, however, a Jane Austen miniseries.  It has a lot more violence and is much more masculine than most of the period dramas you find on BBC proper.  It makes Downton Abbey look about as masculine as a pink tutu.  So they can tap into some of the BBC America demographic that tunes in for Top Gear and Bond marathons. The show is very adult with lots of violence and some weird sexual stuff (10-year-old prostitute/sex slave, for example).  BBC does that as well. I’m still scarred from some of the stuff in Luther.

I’m glad BBC America is moving into original programming, but I don’t know why they feel that all of that programming has to be US-centric.  Surely, we’re tuning in because we like the U.K., right?  I feel a little let down that they think we won’t watch unless it takes place in America.

But enough rambling.  Is the show any good?

Well…I’m not confident enough to say it was great, or to highly recommend it.

The combination of sets and CGI scenes makes a very convincing 19th-century New York, and that’s perhaps the most interesting part of the show. It very realistically recreates a time and a place and makes those lives seem real an accessible.  I’m not an expert on 19th-century New York, so I can’t tell how accurate the sets, costumes, etc. are, but the people and the place feels real.  Harlem is desolate farmland, and ‘Five Points’ is a slum occupying what is now the general area of City Hall and Chinatown.  Central Park is inhabited by sheep only, from what we see. Seeing these places as they were is surreal, but sort of wonderful.

The actors are good, particularly Tom Weston-Jones as the main character, Kevin Corcoran.  His story is the most compelling, but not the most tragic we encounter.  He has returned from fighting for the Yankees in the Civil War, to find that his wife is missing and his daughter has been murdered.  He asks every day if anyone has seen his wife or a locket she prized.  He is on the hunt for answers.

Like Luther, House, and many other lone wolf heroes, Corcoran is a moral man who will go to any lengths to accomplish his tasks–including doing some fairly immoral things.  It’s a pretty wild time, and we see fairly quickly that (at least for Corky), being a pacifist or less willing to force his way through barriers, just wouldn’t get it done in his world. He’s got no problem with violence, when he thinks it’s justified, and I found it hard to empathize with him for this fact.

Most of the wealthy characters are apathetic at best and terrible at worst.  The audience isn’t given much to care about with their characters.  The only possible exception is Robert Morehouse, a soldier with Corky in the war, who makes a fairly impressive journey from drunken heir to honorable man by the end of the season.

Many of the poorer characters are more evil and more compelling all around.  There’s Eva (Franka Potente), the street-smart brothel runner, Annie, the 10-year-old Lolita, and Francis, the most Irish of Irish cops, who is harboring more than a few secrets. Dr. Freeman is a particularly likable black doctor who has just moved with his agoraphobic wife to Harlem, but consults on Corky’s cases in a forensic capacity.

So there are compelling characters (though you shouldn’t go in expecting to truly like any of them) and great work done with costumes and sets.  I think that the writing is what holds back this show from being more enjoyable.  There are plenty of twists and reversals of fortune, mysteries and conflicts, but for some reason I wasn’t emotionally invested in much of what happened.  I’m not skilled enough at dissecting shows to pinpoint exactly why, but I think it has to do with the dialogue.  I found that often during this show I would want to do something else while I watched, from playing solitaire on my phone to checking emails.  It didn’t keep me riveted enough to sit and watch. The dialogue exists in a sort of no-man’s-land between modern utilitarian speech and the more fancified 19th-century variety. It lacks the poetry and artistry of true period speech, which can be used to create an incredible emotional tension (based entirely on what isn’t said) and it isn’t quite as compelling as modern speech.  It just isn’t good enough.

I would only recommend this show to people who are particularly interested in the period or who really loved the film Gangs of New York.  I may tune in for the second season (I haven’t decided yet), but it’s not a must.  I will say, however, that anyone who is a facial hair aficionado must watch this show.  It’s got it all.  Corky is always sporting an aggressive five o’clock shadow, but there are also full beards,

something I’ll call mustache chops,

and, my favorite, the Martin Van Buren:

Copper has already been picked up for a second season, so tune in next year for your follicle fix.