Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tea, the Quintessence of Irishness

If I had to choose a symbol of Ireland, it wouldn't be the harp. It wouldn't be the Irish wolfhound or the round tower or the shamrock. Don't get me wrong. I thoroughly approve of all those symbols, and I wish they were still as commonly seen as they used to be on school copy-books, jam jar labels, and shop signs.

But, to me, the best symbol of all things Irish is a cup of tea. We drink more of the stuff per capita than any nation in the world, and I am prouder of that than of all of our Nobel prizes, Olympic gold medals and famous names in history.

Tea! I doubt that a day has passed since my childhood in which I didn't drink tea. When an Irish person tells me that they don't drink tea, I feel as if they'd told me they don't laugh or read or walk. I can't even imagine my life without this sepia-coloured liquid delight. Torturers could probably break me much quicker by withholding my tea fix than by thumbscrews or waterboarding or sleep deprivation.

Please understand me. I do not mean herbal tea, iced tea, peppermint tea or any of those fancy-schmancy varieties that never came (Irish people will know what I mean here) in a red or a green box, with tokens of black-and-white minstrels you could cut out and collect to win a car. I mean the sort of tea that comes in Lyons and Barry's boxes. I mean dark, sustaining, full-bodied, Irish mammy tea. Breakfast tea.

There was a time when I took sugar in tea. I find it hard to imagine now. Sometimes someone gives me a cup of sugared tea and I do my best to pretend I don't mind. Really it's like salt in your corn flakes, or maybe sleeping on a wet mattress.

They say you should give sugary tea to people in shock. If I'm already in shock, I think sugared tea might drive me all the way into trauma.

This is how tea should be served (although even writing "served" makes me wince, since the formality jars. The Irish have a tea-making ceremony just like the Japanese, but the Irish tea-making ceremony is much more elastic and subtle and probably imperceptible to an outside observer).

It should on no account be watery or weak. I used to like this, too, unimaginably. Weak tea is a statement of spiritual lukewarmness, the natural beverage of the wishy-washy and half-hearted. Tea should not taste like an infusion of leaves into boiled water but rather like a primary element in liquid form. The marriage of ingredients should be so perfect, so unified, that you could imagine the stuff in your cup came from a hot tea-spring surging up from igneous rocks in some fiery country.

Tea is a symbol of the folk life, the folk spirit. If it is not full-bodied, it is nothing at all. It should be as pungent as a proverb, as overwhelming as hospitality, as thick as the strongest of accents. Nothing else is really Irish tea.

A cup of tea should, ideally, be a mug of tea. Dainty china should be kept for doll's tea-parties. Nobody ever took a deep draft from fine bone china, smacked her lips, and declared that "that hit the spot".

No, tea should come in a thick mug that you can comfortably cradle between your open palms. Considerations of age and sex do not enter into this. There is nothing lady-like about taking dainty sips of tea. Nor should children be confined to toy cups if they are ever going to develop (as they must) into serious tea imbibers.

There are some occasions when the young and the old, the male and the female meet on equal terms, and sharing a cup of tea is one of them.

Tea should not be black unless you are performing penance. How can tea perform its office of comfort and reassurance if it is all bite and no balm? The keenness of the beverage must, absolutely must, be softened by the mildness of milk. Not too much milk, of course. Not enough to take away the golden tinge in the bowl. Nor should the tea be stirred so consistently that the swirls and streaks of colour are mixed into one flat monotone.

Tea should be hot enough that steam rises from it. On a cold morning this can be visual poetry.

I love everything about tea. I love its announcement: "Let's have a cup of tea", "Would you like a cup of tea?", "Make a cup of tea there". I love the brisk, deft rinsing of cups and fishing of tea-bags from boxes, the low hum of the boiling water becoming more and more excited until it is a feverish bubbling. That's in an electric kettle, of course. If it's an old-fashioned kettle on a hob, you even get an incomparable, cheerful-solemn whistle-- perhaps the most magical of all sounds perceptible to the human ear.

Then there is the tinkle of water into the cups, the beautiful dark brown before the milk is poured in, the sight of your reflection in that circular mirror-world, dim and faraway and strangely transfigured. There is the ringing of the spoon against the sides of the cup as you vigorously shake the tea-bag. There is the graceful descent of the life-giving milk, and the slow-but-quick transformation of the happy fluid from treacle-coloured to an ambery-sepia.

And then-- ah then!-- the lifting to the lips, the deep and grateful draft, the filtering of warmth and replenishment and comfort and uplift through all the thoroughfares of the body.

Tea is-- at one and the same time-- both special and everyday, hardworking and leisurely, soothing and stimulating, down-to-earth and dreamy. It is a pleasure in itself and radiates a pleasure through the world around it. Even seeing somebody holding a cup of tea gives me a warm feeling inside. A news reporter or a politician or a foreman or anybody at all looks so much more trustworthy and human and salt-of-the-earth when they are grasping a nice thick steaming mug of Ireland's national beverage.

I can't imagine my life without tea. Come to think of it, I feel like a cup now.


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