Crumpets and Coal: Our First Proper Tea

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In Paris, we stayed with a French-Moroccan couple who fed us mint tea (at midnight, after dinner) in traditional gold-inlaid glasses; sweet mint tea followed us to the hookah bars of Dubai; then, in Pakistan and India we were deluged with dood chai—black tea with hot milk and sugar, served anytime, anywhere. In West Bengal, our roommates detested milk and sugar in their ca (pronounced “cha”), preferring their tea bitter, so this is what we drank during our two months in Birpara, where we lived and worked among green tea gardens and golden glasses of ca.

But it was not until Darjeeling, with its stalwart Victorian legacy, that we encountered a true, British tea, with all the trappings. In addition to a hot glass pot of fresh Darjeeling, which came dressed in several layers of warming cozies, there were cucumber sandwiches, cakes, and, possibly, crumpets, though I’m not sure what one looks like. Maybe they were biscuits. (At $6, this indulgence cost ten times what we normally pay for a pot of tea.)

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We found this cross-reverse-cultural experience at a heritage hotel atop the Chowrasta, the famous Windamere, where we wandered into one of several woodfloor-creaking sitting rooms with a blazing coal fire, antique furniture, paintings, and carpets. A small, framed sign next to the fireplace said, “Visitors are requested not to take off their footware, or put their feet on the furniture, or lie supine on the hearth, or sleep behind the settees, lest unintended offence be given to others.”

We shared the room with a quartet of London men on the settees opposite, chatting about their ancestry and, of course, having tea. We sipped and nibbled and learned that they were also staying in cheaper digs and had only walked to the Windamere to see the place where one of the gentleman’s grandfathers had stayed during his tour as an officer in the Royal British Army. We told him that we, too, had been pursuing our roots in Pakistan and other parts of India, and this created an Anglo-American bond that mere tea and crumpets could not. They were traveling on to Sikkim and Bhutan and when they left, we said “cheers.”

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