Saturday, January 3, 2009

The blessings of a nice cup of tea

One of my favourite Christmas treats was a funky teapot, which has brought tea drinking to a whole new level for me. It's like a kettle, white ceramic with red flowers and black leaves.

I have gone back to drinking leaf tea after years of teabags in a mug. In defence of the much-maligned teabag, they are not too bad in Ireland, much better than in other countries I've lived in. It also set me thinking about tea in the various manifestations and its significance in my life over the years, hence this tribute.

Here is my lovely new teapot, and a mug
I grew up with tea as a constant in my life, coffee never intruding in my childhood unless you counted a vile concoction called Irel which was ersatz coffee made from chicory and must have been invented by some demented sadist in the days of wartime rationing. In any case it put me right off coffee until my student days when bedsit Maxwell House made for urban sophistication in those pre-skinny latte and cappucino days! Tea was always super-sweet until one Lent in nursing school in Dublin when I decided to give up sugar and smoking. Well, one out of two ain't bad, and I haven't gone back to sweet tea since. (The smoking cessation didn't happen for another four years and had nothing to do with Lent, but that's another story.)
In the late 1970s I worked in Bangladesh as a volunteer with the Irish-based NGO, Concern. There were the most magnificent tea gardens in Sylhet, which we visited for some of their key social events (see below!). Factory tours there showed us how the tea moved from the bush to the pot, and the process was fascinating. The tea gardens, shaded by a canopy of tall trees, possibly eucalyptus but I'm not sure, were an undulating landscape in an otherwise flat country, and this novelty value alone made them worth a visit, as did the arcane social life. The tea estates were run by remnants of the Empire, either British "Staying On" Raj types, or Anglo-Indians straight out of a Somerset Maugham novel, where full afternoon tea on the verandah was a venerable institution. The social calendar was marked by events like the Monsoon Ball and the Bachelor's Ball...which seemed totally anachronistic to me in a country that was not only post-colonial by (then) 30 years, but newly independent and in search of a strong identity.

Other tea encounters in that era were holidays in Sri Lanka to the Kandy and Adam's Peak area where there were totally different tea gardens, in misty mountainous central highlands. I can't recall the exact location of the tea estates but I remember another factory tour! And it seems the floor sweepings always ended up in teabags, which should have put me off for life, but didn't. (Maybe I have a slovenly approach to tea, and need to become a tea connoisseur/snob like so many coffee and wine "connoisseurs"!)

In those days, I eschewed the ubiquitous Chai of the entire subcontinent as being way too sweet, spicy and stewed to death, the latter being totally unforgiveable for an Irish tea drinker. (The only exception was the wonderful thirst-quenching milky chai on the trains in India, poured from a froth-inducing height into unglazed clay cups, which were thrown out of the train window afterwards - the best recycling ever.) It amuses me now to see how Chai has gained such status among tea aficionados, up there with green, white and herbal tea, and costs a fortune. Earl Gray was the height of sophistication in my younger days, and I ruined the image by adding milk!

Tanzania was our next exotic port of call, for most of the 80s and half the 90s. Another tea country, with tea gardens in the Southern Highlands as well as up North, though I only recall coffee shambas in the Arusha/Kilimanjaro/Moshi area, and in Bukoba/Kagera region. Near Iringa where we lived was a large tea estate at Mufindi, part of the gardens were nationalised and others run by Brooke Bond, part of Unilever, which was another anachronism in such a socialist country. Mufindi Club was a weekend retreat for many wazungu (expats/foreigners) and we compromised our principles somewhat by learning to play golf there on a beautiful course at over 2000m altitude. The estate was run like a company town, with a company shop for the employees where visitors to the club could buy tea from the factory. I was homeschooling our three boys back in those days and a factory tour became a mandatory field trip, where we saw every stage of production right down to - you guessed it - the teabags! Apparently not quite floor sweepings but the finest filtering of the leaves.
This is William, age 7 in Mufindi, sitting near the clubhouse by the first tee, eating peanuts -1994
Then we spent a few years in Laos, where tea was grown on the Bolovens Plateau in the far south, a place I never visited but the tea from there was large leafs, and very smoky. Very much an acquired taste which I never quite did acquire, so there was a lot of Lyon's and Barry's tea smuggled back from home; it became as coveted as Tayto Cheese'n'Onion crisps whenever visitors from Dublin came on project visits. The only "normal" tea available in Vientiane was ghastly Lipton's teabags, which had high-tech strings attached that could actually squeeze the teabag and prevent it dripping all over the floor! Never improved the taste though - a memory perhaps best forgotten!
My myriad tea gaffes are legendary and almost led to domestic diplomatic incidents back in the early 80s with Jan when visiting my future in-laws in The Netherlands. The Dutch do not drink much tea, and those that do drink it black. My persistent request for milk led to much confusion and bewilderment, and I was often given tea with "koffiemelk", which bears no relation to real milk and ruins a cuppa. Such was my desperation at one stage that I resorted to raiding the milk bulk tank on Jan's family farm to sneak in a jug of milk. I dread to think what impression they must have had of mad Irishwomen after that incident. Other cultural divides were in the presentation - a cup of tepid water with a teabag in the saucer was often proferred by friends who had the temerity to consider this constituted a cup of tea!

Apple Tart with Cream

And now we've come full circle - back to where I started tea drinking, in Lismore. There is nothing more relaxing and soothing than a nice hot cuppa at the start and end of the day, and many times in between. A nice piece of cake, a bun or a slice of apple tart with cream is an ideal accompaniment, and for breakfast it goes great with toast. The full Irish breakfast is incomplete without a pot of tea.
This rack of Almond Buns is ready to be enjoyed with a cuppa.

Culturally, Irish people are probably among the greatest consumers of tea, always milky and with or without sugar. This knows no geographical boundaries, as we are always asked to bring tea to Spain for Shayne, to keep him endlessly supplied, and the Irish community of nuns in Kabanga Hospital, where two of our sons were born, made the best pot of strong tea in Tanzania - it would bend spoons and is a lasting memory of our many visits. Not for nothing are ads for tea invariably nostalgic, with a nod to the emigrant and smacking of more than a touch of paddywhackery.
In Ireland, tea is offered to visitors as a default setting, and woe betide those who demur, as the host will appear more offended than an Irish Mammy in full-on guilt-tripping martyrdom mode! The Mrs. Doyle syndrome (see Father Ted) will then kick in and the refusenik urged to "Go on, Go on, Go on!" until he or she capitulates. Resistance is generally futile and the wise guest will do well to remember this particularly Irish tea-dance is all part of an elaborate ritual. The Irish guest expects to be cajoled and the Irish host expects the initial refusal.
I learnt this to my cost in Tanzania, when visiting a Danish friend for a playdate with our sons. She offered tea when I arrived, and I automatically said something along the lines of "Ah no, I'm grand/don't want to be putting you to any bother" - and that was it ! She said "OK, fine" and left me reeling in shock - and gasping for a cuppa! My Dutch husband could perfectly empathise with her response and from then on I never hesitated in any non-Irish situation when offered that nice cup of tea.


FoodFunFarmLife said...

I love your tea pot ! I love tea, there's nothing better & as you know it is usually the hot beverage of choice here in Tanzania :)
Have a wonderful New Year !
Lynda, Kilimanjaro, East Africa

Unknown said...

Reading this is making me hungry and thirsty!

Tony Waters said...

I don't know. I still like coffee!

A very Dutch Carolus though in the 1980s tried to train me to switch back and forth. He insisted that a switch back and forth between the two during the day was one of the things that made the Dutch unique!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comments and for reading the blog, feedback is always good. Lynda I still miss the lovely Tanzanian tea, specially direct from the factories on the estates. Joe, keep on reading and you might get even hungrier, more recipes will follow!
Tony, even though Africafe was the best coffee ever, and we haven't found it here, though it was in the Traidcraft type shops in Holland some years back, I would still go for tea! Dutch preferences obviously differ from place to place, I didn't meet many tea drinkers in Zeeland (Jan's home)!

Linda said...

I have come across some blogs where the lady who writes loves tea. This one is my favourite.

I am so glad you found my blog.

Cathy said...

From one Catherine to another - Hello there
Theres nothing worse than being taken at your word is there :))
Came over from Linda (Treehugger) and am so pleased I made the journey
Will be back another day
Take care

Jeannette StG said...

Somehow I missed this post - customs with tea are so different for each country, and the only way to learn it is to make mistakes, like with your Danish friend in Tanzania! My mother, ho spent her life in Indonesia till she was 40, always drank her tea with milk. I never liked it that way, so I didn't drink it.
Until a friend here in the US let me try whole leaf teas in a coffee and tea room, and got me hooked on tea (in general). I drink it every evening, but without sugar or milk:)

Unknown said...

Wow what an amazing selection of tea adventures! :)

Catherine said...

Maeve - thanks for following me - hope you like it. I have had a fair few tea adventures - might even find more to blog about - there are some more posts in the making. Keep on visiting (Between studying!)
Good luck! Catherine.