If you could but know what a comfort those words are! Well, actually, if you are from England – either now or in the recent ancestral past – you probably DO know that comfort. We colonials way out here in New Zealand certainly do. TEA was here long before coffee, and still stakes a sturdy claim on the drinking customs of kiwis.
Here is how I was brought up. This photo covers many of the traditional customs not only true of my family but of many I know:
That is my beloved Grandmother sitting with her daughter-in-law, my mother. You will notice that she, the eldest woman in the party, is pouring the milk. (Milk first, of course). If you can discern the vessel into which it is going, you will see a bone china cup, resting on a saucer with a small plate beneath. Beside her left hand is her favourite no frills teapot made out of stainless steel and with “the best pouring spout she had ever had.” It must be ‘an occasion’ because it looks like afternoon tea (High Tea) and there is more than a plate of crackers, cheese and tomatoes accompanying the tea. Those look like ginger muffins, fruit slice, and date loaf.
Grandma’s action with the wrist and arm is worth beholding, and was the result of decades of practise and skill. She would lift the teapot slightly as the last portion was poured so that a comforting gurgle of soft splashing occurred. No drop was spilled, and the end result after the tea was poured was a froth of bubbles sitting tranquilly on the surface. Tea was the drink of choice for my growing years, and instant coffee only made its appearance in the late 60’s and 70’s. When I was a child, we were allowed sometimes to have ‘coffee’ which was really cochineal. For a couple more decades we satisfied ourselves with a teaspoon of powdered coffee in boiling water, and as a treat, in a coffee bar, you could get the drip filter coffee.
How times have changed!
I am a true cafe-goer now, with my favourite espresso readily on my tongue. Every corner of New Zealand is covered by cafes all offering something unique along with the espresso experience. My own drinking customs are fairly settled: A cup of hot tea on a weekend morning, with toast. By morning tea, I am ready for an espresso from my coffee maker (Flat White or Latte). I might have another before lunch, but it’s hot tea after that for the rest of the day. During the week, I like to start with a coffee from our espresso maker at work, which grinds the beans, and pushes the milk through like a frother. No self-respecting business of the size of our University would not offer its staff a kitchen without espresso machine.
For all that, tea has not gone out of fashion either. It is commonplace around me and mine, to offer hot tea whenever one has been sharing anything emotional. It is regarded as a cure for many ills, merely the sitting together around a cup of tea. Nothing stirs the ‘safe’ mechanisms faster than hearing someone say, “I’ll just put the kettle on,” or “would you like a cuppa?”
Coffee, on the other hand, is what you suggest when meeting friends for a catch up. Whether they drink it or not, when you say, “Shall we meet for a coffee sometime?” a whole picture opens up of what you really mean. Somewhere where there’s ambience, and buzz. People serving YOU for a change. A touch of something tasty to eat if you feel like it, and most of all, the hiss and roar of the espresso machine on the counter churning out frothy, or milky, or sultry dark beverages as fast as the barrister can make them. This particular experience is hard to copy at home – although I have a machine there. It takes so long to individually make the coffees that the conversation happens in your absence as you make the coffees one by one.
So let’s go back to tea. THAT is something you can do for a group without losing any conversation, and providing for everyone’s taste. I have a stack of lovely aged bone china pieces in my cabinet that occasionally I have brought out for a treat, when a group of friends come around. And they do enjoy picking their favourite cup, and the whole process of pouring the tea and seeing it gurgle into the milk.
And I also have at least four teapots to choose from, not counting the smaller individual teapots I use just for myself.
The beauty is that with tea in a pot, you can top up your own teacup, without a break in the conversation. At some point the hostess may have to pour in more boiling water, but a proper morning or afternoon tea can bubble with conversation and clinking of china and no one feels they are missing out. It is a wonderful occasion, and I missed it greatly when I was living in the States. Down in Atlanta, the only tea that seemed common was the iced variety, for obvious reasons. But still, the whole sense of ceremony was completely lost. When I bought Bell tea and made my own hot tea with it, it was – I’m sorry to say – disappointing. So weak and flavourless. There’s nothing like a good strong Irish or English Breakfast tea in the morning, and an Earl Grey later in the day.
Tea forms such a strong connection with me, that I have even done paintings around the idea of it. I’ll leave you with some of them here, while I go and put the kettle on . . . again.