30 MARCH 2002, Page 28

While the bubbling and loud-hissing urn throws up a steamy column


Easter is a good time for tea parties,' my Uncle Jack used to say, 'for it gives, d'you know, a good excuse for eating a nice, fresh, soft-boiled egg.' To have 'an egg for your tea' was regarded as a treat but not exorbitantly luxurious in those days, the mid-Thirties. Now I do not go so far as an egg, but serving tea to one or up to four guests is my favourite form of entertainment, and, I find, a popular one: people do not often get asked out to tea these days. Foreigners are particularly keen: 'So English.' It solves the problem of what to do with Bolivian, Siamese or East European readers who ask to come to see me, or American politicians, businessmen and editors (who are offered breakfast as an alternative). They come at four and, just before five, I remark, 'Oh, but the tea is cold — shall I brew another pot?' Then they know it is time to go. Japanese are particularly keen on being asked to tea. So are Chileans. 'Tea is a serious meal in Chile,' as my old friend Salvador Allende said to me — a view, oddly enough, confirmed by General Pinochet, who once gave me a sumptuous tea at his HQ: apricot icecream, Welsh rarebit and super-rich dark cake from Jackson's of Piccadilly.

My teas are much simpler. A cake is essential. I still miss the Fuller's Walnut of my undergraduate days, useful for softening the resistance of a girl from LMH or Cherwell Edge. I also miss my childhood favourites: Eccles cakes, Goosenagh cakes (quite unobtainable) and Battenberg, such as Queen Mary liked. There is, however, a carrot cake, light and bouncy with a cream filling, which M&S produces, and which is 'wholesome', to use Mr Woodhouse's term of approval. I also enjoy the superb tarte aux pommes produced by Maison Blanc in Holland Park Avenue, but this is only for special guests at, say, Lady Thatcher's level. If I can get a really thinly sliced Hovis, cucumber sandwiches are served, that being the most magical instant entry into the vanished world at which all tea-tables should hint. And is there honey still for tea?' Certainly not. It is viscous and adherent, unfit for my library or drawingroom, not liked by dainty ladies or puzzled foreign novelists. The same goes for Marmite sandwiches or peanut kitties, except for children, who get their tea strictly in the kitchen.

On the other hand, I indulge my guests in biscuits: new-style sultana cookies from Philadelphia, coconut gingers from New

castle, white chocolate fingers, almond sundaes, dark chow-lemons. Rings of Delight, hazelnut triangles, old-fashioned fig rolls as served in convent parlours 70 years ago, Brussels bombshells, Spanish currant flakes, and langues de chat — anything scrumptious and exotic I can get my hands on. If I can be bothered, I have a little saucer of fruit: a strawberry or two, Cape gooseberries, dried apricots, prunes (a bane of my childhood, now ultra-smart) and perhaps a peeled baby orange.

But the most important thing is the tea itself. I am a great one for warming and drying the pot. I have nothing against bags, but I don't serve them, unless, to please myself. I brew up some Red Label, the nearest you can get these days to old Winchester Barracks army tea, with its rich orange colour and redolence of blanco and four-by-twos. Not going in for bags for guests, I have a large red pot with an interior mesh compartment to hold the tea-leaves, so you can pour it unmessily without a strainer. The range of tea now easily available is enormous, and includes herbal and fruit-flavoured brands of 40 or 50 varieties, useful for summer in the garden but not right for cosy winter teas or even Faster ones. Foreigners like them, but they are no good for entertaining an Oxford don, a general, a bishop or the more worthwhile kind of literary editor. I usually stick to well-known brands of Assam, Darjeeling, Ceylon, South Indian, Earl Grey, Lapsang, the milder gunpowders and, occasionally, Kenya tea. Teas, I should explain, come in three main strengths — strong, medium and weak — and explaining this, and asking for preferences, puts the stickier guests at ease. At present, I favour three brands: a Ceylon orange pekoe leaf tea, a Nilgiri (both medium) and a special strong India leaf tea called Whittard Original, notable for its powerful colour. For residents of Notting Hill, there is a Whittard's at the end of Whiteleys, where an enthusiastic and pretty girl will advise.

But, as old J.B. Priestley used to say. Any tea is better than no tea.' I have drunk some formidably bad tea in my time. In Gibraltar, I discovered that my monoglot Spanish batman, Paco, made my tea by heating water in a frying pan, scattering army issue on top, adding a handful of chopped onion and pinches of any herbs available, then bringing it all up to an oleaginous boil. This was tea, I imagine, as served in the brothels and rookeries of La Linea de la Concepcion, just across the bor der. Try it. Another pungent variety, rather like a thick soup, is made by the trackers and bearers on Kenyan safaris, for their own consumption. I sampled it while making television movies there. It is very sweet and tastes like crocodile boiled in beetroot. The great thing about drinking it, when they kindly offer it to you, is that you must laugh uproariously at the first gulp, and announce, 'I say, I say.'

There are one or two things about tea parties I do not like. Once, in Ulm on a Sunday afternoon in summer, I found this quintessentially German town deserted: not a soul. I saw a sign proclaiming a tea shop, and tramped through an empty hall and up silent stairs to a formidable brass-bound door. Once I opened it, I saw the burghers of Ulm, hundreds of them, all ages and both sexes, crammed round tables quaffing tea and coffee in buckets, and stuffing down prodigious quantities of Babylonian cream-cakes. The din was tremendous: lip-smacking, thigh-thumping heils and wunderbars, loud quotations from Schiller, shouts for more, singing of Beethoven symphonies — the lot. It rather put me off cream-cakes at tea, more particularly as it was Hitler's habit to serve oodles of cream-stuffed buns and eclairs when entertaining to tea, on the terrace at Berchtesgaden, the Mitford girls, Lloyd George and other celebrities. He continued to eat cream-buns to the end, so that one of his last companions in the Bunker dismissed him as 'a cake-chomping zombie'. Was that what Wordsworth meant in 'Peter Bell' when he wrote of 'some party in a parlour . . . sipping tea . . all silent and all damned' — lines subsequently deleted so as 'not to offend the pious'?

Cream, therefore, is out. But I am not to be further put off in my enjoyment of the beverage by learning that it was the delight of Comrade Stalin and Chairman Mao, that Poi Pot loved a steaming pekoe, and that alQa'eda regulars like nothing better than a Typhoo cuppa. I am, as Dr Johnson described himself. 'a hardened and shameless tea-drinker'. He drank it at all hours, being a man 'who has for 20 years diluted his meals with the infusion of this fascinating plant'. I draw the line at tea with dinner. But at its proper season and time, what more congenial habit than to entertain old friends and new, strangers — even enemies — with a cup of this cheerful liquid, while the silver sugar-bowl sparkles, the fruitcake greedily beckons, the chatter intensifies and the thick curtains wait to be drawn?