Sunday, 12 May 2013

Everything stops for tea


Irish Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin has said that he has resolved many an important economic issue with his colleague Finance Minister Michael Noonan over a cup of tea according to an article in http://www.TheJournal.ie today.   Henry Fielding wrote "love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea".  He had a point.

A cup of tea was the "cure all" when I was growing up in Ireland.  If you had a headache, a cup of tea would fix it, if your stomach was upset, a cup of tea was recommended.  I can't remember if any of these remedies actually worked.  I suspect that the comfort of having a cup of this hot aromatic liquid improved my spirits rather than dispelling any discomfort I might have been feeling.

The Irish and the British are notorious for their addiction to tea.  Our continental neighbours do not share this passion.  In Germany, for example, where I lived for many years, tea is taken black and weak, and no self-respecting German would have a mug of tea at his or her elbow all day long.  Coffee is the preferred drink, especially in the office, but only until around four o'clock in the afternoon because if taken after that time it will keep you awake, they tell you. The Italians like to drink espresso on their way to work and they may or may not have a sticky bun or croissant to go with it.  I was in St.Mark's Square in Venice once on a weekday and was amazed at all the people in business attire who lined the counters sipping coffee and reading the daily newspaper before heading off to their place of work.  But maybe you need a good strong espresso of a morning if you have to get around by boat.

Meeting someone for a coffee is pretty much international, though. This could be because tea-making has something of a ritual about it and if you order tea in a restaurant you may not get exactly what you want.  Coffee on the other hand does not require more than a percolator or a dash of hot water on powder if you're not fussy.  Yes, there are many varieties these days - cafe creme, latte, cappuccino, espresso to name but a few but they are all something special mostly to be enjoyed in a coffee bar.  There are no tea bars interestingly enough, but in good quality hotels you have a choice of several different kinds of tea, admittedly in teabags.

There are people who still use loose tea because it gives a better flavour.  But even in our hurried world of instant gratification where we use the less messy teabags, there are differences between brands of tea and tea drinkers stick to their preferred brand.  A few gourmets only take the Darjeeling or Earl Grey variety. Most of us tea-drinkers though like our tea either "weak", "not too strong", or "strong" and we are not always sure where it comes from. 

Tea  appears to have first been used in China in about the 3rd century and later in Japan.  Interestingly although we think tea drinking an original British and Irish habit, tea was not introduced to Britain until the 1650's when Catherine of Braganza (who was Portuguese) married Charles II and, missing  the Portuguese tea-drinking culture, started the custom.  At that time tea was distributed through the coffee houses which were popular then.   Another surprise is that tea-growing in India was a British initiative to break the Chinese monopoly.

So when we put the kettle on, we are part of a long chain of culture.  We are also continuing a very valuable ritual.  There's nothing quite as relaxing as sitting down to share a cup of tea. Cheers!

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