Put the Kettle On: Tea in Britain | An Interview with Maria Denney, Golden Monkey Tea Company
The refrain in the title of this interview is one that has endured to the point of slight irony; across the board, be it on a lunch break or post a personal apocalypse, denizens of the British Isles are carrying on over a hot cuppa. Everyday tragedies tremble before the humble brew, which sits at the crossroads of hospitality, comfort and tradition. Any time after September, a sweet, milky cup of ‘builder’s tea’ warms you through to your toes. A cheeky biscuit makes an appearance between meals, and you’re not the sort of monster that would eat a dry, crumbly digestive without dunking it. Depending on where you find yourself in the UK, the word ‘tea’ is equivalent to dinner – which, of course, can be followed by an actual pot of tea.
The Camellia sinensis leaf came to Britain from Japan and China in the 1600s, brought over by Dutch traders. Originally, it was a luxury item at private parties in the parlors of nobility, circumscribed by much etiquette and fine porcelain. It trickled down into public coffeehouses as a medicinal drink, and has enjoyed fairly exponential growth since, especially with the advent of the afternoon tea in the 1840s. Developed by Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, the meal was a late afternoon refreshment between meals, usually featuring tea, cakes, and buttered bread. The Duchess enjoyed considerable influence as one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, and the practice caught on, elevating itself to multi-tiered cream teas that involved scones, entremets, and in some versions, champagne.
My vantage point for this article was interesting. I am an Indian from West Bengal, the state where inimitable Darjeeling teas are grown. My Indian family drinks, almost exclusively, loose leaf tea from Darjeeling and Assam. In 2020, I married into an English family with a watertight loyalty to a boxed tea bag brand. We have shared thousands of brews since, and it became a quietly pleasing ritual to make each member of the family their Goldilocks cup: one sugar, three sugars – I’m not giving you that many – a splash of milk, lightly steeped, and so forth.
Craving a change post lockdown, I explored Warwick, the small town in the UK where I live. I discovered a delightful local tea house, the Thomas Oken Tearooms, housed in a 500-year-old Tudor pile, and learned that they were supplied by an independent tea merchant on Smith Street, in what was once Warwick’s Jewish quarter. Instantly recognizable by its black-and-gold signpost, Golden Monkey Tea Company is named for a Chinese black tea – one whose leaves curl like a simian’s tail. I now own over 17 of their teas, and have dedicated a small cupboard in my kitchen to them. As a lover of cream tea, I felt there was no better place in my neighborhood to ask for insight on tea, scones, and everything in between.
Maria, the owner and effervescent tea enthusiast, meets me in the back room of the Golden Monkey tea shop, which exudes a wonderful cacophony of fragrances: smoky tea leaves, the acid of strong black coffee, and whispers of fruit. The wall beside us is lined with images of tea gardens in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. Maria has previously seen me go to pieces over a strainer with a weight shaped like a cat, so we bypass the formalities.
Tell me about how you started Golden Monkey, and how the shop evolved over time.
I started during the recession in 2008. I had my heart set on it, so by the time things got really bad, there was no turning back! I had come to Britain only two years before then, and I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do; I had studied Design at university and fallen out of love with it. I thought there was a real opportunity to start my own business. Tea was something I had a real appreciation for even though I didn’t know a huge amount about it at the time, and I was living in Warwick, this old, beautiful town with little nooks and charming little shops. I just put two and two together and thought ‘This is it. I think I need to sell tea to the British.’
That’s what started the ball rolling, and now I’ve been here for thirteen and a half years. I used to, at the very beginning, share this lovely old shop – which is over 400 years old, this being the oldest shopping street in Warwick – with a goldsmith. We were probably the most unique shop in Britain, a tea merchant and a goldsmith. We always said we sold the finer things in life. I eventually took on the bigger property and started supplying other local businesses. Then the website came about, and now we essentially have four ventures, since we also teach people about tea. We give people a much better idea of what tea actually is – especially loose leaf, as we don’t drink a lot of loose tea in this country. I felt this was an opportunity to get people excited about something that they love but don’t actually know much about. We’re growing organically, gradually getting people hooked on tea.
Well, it’s certainly worked on me! What is it about tea and the process of preparing it that inspires you?
It can be one of the most mindful things to do. You notice it especially when you’ve been using teabags frequently, and all of a sudden you get into this ritual of taking out your favorite teapot, pouring your favorite tea, and enjoying a slightly longer process. It forces you to sit down and relish it, because more effort goes into it. For me, it’s how I start my day every day. You walk past the kettle, you turn it on.
And it’s different from the buzz of coffee as well, isn’t it? More like your mind’s unfurling rather than just switching on.
I think you can tell when customers are addicted to coffee or tea, for sure. I think we’re a lot more patient as tea drinkers, because coffee gives you that high, and it’s a very early morning buzz that makes you think you can’t function without it. Tea doesn’t have quite as many complex processes surrounding its making, so it’s simpler to approach, and a slower satisfaction. There’s no snobbery - you really can do whatever you want as long as you’re enjoying your cup.
What part does tea play in British culture today?
Funnily, from an outsider’s perspective, tea and Britain go hand in hand. They expect this tea shop on every corner. But the only real tradition that is still in existence and well-loved is afternoon tea. It’s been exported to other countries, used as an excuse to dress up and see your friends, to eat finger sandwiches and scones – and of course, to drink delicious tea. I think it’s had a revival in the last few years, and it really is a quintessentially British experience. Tea drinking has almost become secondary!
Overall tea consumption here has actually dropped slightly in recent years, even though demand for loose leaf teas has increased. And people tend to stay in for tea rather than go out for it – that’s more the realm of coffee, the way you’d ask someone out to a coffee shop for a date. But tea is more intimate, more comforting.
Agreed. It means you’ve come home. Even though tea’s been around in Britain in some form or another for centuries, a lot of people here do tend to drink it in bags. As an indie business owner dealing in artisanal products like loose leaf tea, in-house roasts, specialty chocolate and handmade ceramics, can you explain why a space like this is an important part of a community today?
I think one unique, fantastic thing about loose tea is that it’s almost impossible to replicate in a grocery store environment. Most people that have been exposed to tea have only been exposed to things on offer in the bigger supermarkets. As an experience, a small business like this is perfect for that variety and quality. It is the sort of business that people return to, and so you become a destination, just like a bakery, or like a zero-waste shop. It becomes part of your routine, in the same way going to a coffee shop does. The other thing that makes it special is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to have something different. For us, it was very much about offering a huge variety which you wouldn’t get anywhere else. We throw everything at this one product!
What’s your best seller within the categories of black tea, green tea and infusions?
For black, it’s slightly predictably our English Breakfast Blend. 80% of the tea we sell here is black tea. When it comes to green tea we each push our favorites; I’d say a nice clean Sencha. And for herbal and fruit infusions, it’s one of our blends called Counting Sheep. It has chamomile, lavender, lemongrass and spearmint. Always a hit.
Rapid fire! What’s your personal favorite snack or baked good to scoff with a cup of tea?
Oh my gosh – uh, uh – I love a scone! I really do! Especially with sultanas. I think plain ones are a bit boring, personally, but cranberries or other fruited ones I adore. I do like a bit of jam, and it’s the only time I’ll have clotted cream. It’s one of my favorite things in the world.
And keeping in mind you have an audience, do you subscribe to the Cornish method of jam before cream, or the Devon way of cream before jam?
Clotted cream first! Scientifically speaking, it looks prettier. The jam mixes in and makes a colored swirl. I even cut my scone up sometimes – I know, shocking. It’s controversial in my household too – my husband does it the other way!
What tea from Golden Monkey’s collection would pair best with a white chocolate and strawberry scone, BreadEx’s first bake for our month of breads from the UK?
We have an absolutely beautiful new fruit infusion called Secret Garden, and it’s a combination of strawberry and mint. Neither is too overpowering; it’s a refreshing, light infusion that would pair really well with white chocolate. A nice Assam or Keemun would make a great contrast, if you wanted to be traditional about it: something strong and malty. Nice cuppa black tea, maybe a smidgen of milk- properly British.
You heard it here first – put the kettle on, pull up a chair, and enjoy BreadEx’s white chocolate and strawberry scones this sunny June. For more insight into global culinary traditions, join our mailing list.