Nasty cup of tea? No problem at all

Following our round-up of classy coffee shops, tea-drinking novelist Denyse Woods tries, and largely fails, to find a decent …

Following our round-up of classy coffee shops, tea-drinking novelist Denyse Woodstries, and largely fails, to find a decent brew.

An article recently appeared in this newspaper about where to get the best cups of coffee. Coffee again; the darling of the caffeinated majority. Lovely for all you coffee-heads out there, but depressing for this tea-drinker, especially since a similar article about tea would amount to a very short paragraph. So while you enjoy another creamy, nutty latte, I'd like to get a question off my chest: where the hell can you get a decent cup of tea in this country?

It will come as a surprise to many in the hospitality industry to learn that some people don't actually drink coffee. Me, for instance. I don't like it; I never have. And that makes me some kind of non-person, because restaurants, cafes and pubs simply don't cater for me. Oh, it's always on the menu - "tea" - but allow me, for a moment, to be as tasteless as what mostly passes for tea these days by quoting from one of my own novels: "Variations of cafe latte, mocha, espresso and hot chocolate are available everywhere, but 'tea' always means a teaspoon of dust in a square bag made of sanitary-towel tissue."

The insipid, lukewarm, tanned water that is produced in this way has as much appeal as a stagnant pool, and yet it is glibly thrust upon tea-drinkers, as if we're caffeine dimwits who don't deserve any better. There seems to be a general belief that making tea - still a time-honoured ritual in most non-western cultures - is simply a matter of giving any old hot water a sniff at any old teabag in any old cup, and charging upwards of €3 for the unpalatable result.


Why? Tea-drinkers are customers too. Why are our needs not met, or even considered? A conspiracy, perhaps? Coffee is, after all, more expensive, so if the tea is revolting, customers will buy coffee instead, as indeed my friends do, even when they feel like tea, because coffee is a safer bet. Even some tea-drinking teenagers I spoke to grumbled about the disgusting stuff they're served, but they can't afford coffee. The trouble is, we Irish rarely complain, and although we are discerning tea-drinkers at home (we love our Barry's blends, take them on holiday with us, and beg for supplies when living abroad), when we venture out, we'll accept whatever comes. And what comes is too often foul.

Some establishments offer a selection of different shades of water under the misapprehension that 16 flavours of petals amounts to catering for the tea-drinker. So we get to drink something floral and consider ourselves lucky. But this rosehip, ginger and even pineapple "tea" is all very well, except for the fact that it isn't, well, tea.

Meanwhile, the honourable Indian or Chinese leaf is rarely treated with the respect it deserves. It has miraculous properties: it is relaxing, cooling, restorative and full of antioxidants. When there is a death, or a shock, no one rushes to make coffee; when the baby is born and the labour over, the mother is handed that resuscitating cup of tea. Yes, it is a diuretic, it keeps you awake and brings on a sweat, but I'm not here to argue its pros and cons. I'd just like to know why, in our vibrant cafe culture, no one seems to have the faintest clue how to make it.

It isn't difficult, lads: boil the water, heat the pot (china, in an ideal world, because it retains heat) put in the tea leaves, pour in the boiling water and let it sit and think for a few minutes. No need for baristas, cremas, latte art or hissing, high-maintenance equipment. All you need to make a good cup of tea is someone who cares about the consumer.

I emphasise "boiling" because this might be where things are going wrong. Apparently, coffee should never be made with boiling water because it impairs the flavour. Tea, on the other hand, must be infused in boiling water. Perhaps catering staff are using the same non-boiling water for both tea and coffee? Just a theory.

Oh, for the days of those old-fashioned teashops we see in the movies, where people sit at linen-clad tables sipping from china cups, eating meringues and watercress sandwiches. Now it's all Americanos and masochistos, and the few teashops that do exist put more effort into their decor than their blends.

PERHAPS I SHOULDlive in the Middle East. The Arabs know their tea. If you linger too long on a pavement, a glass of refreshing mint tea will likely be thrust into your hand. In deserts, homes and poky shops, I've had tea that never fails to revive and delight. In Egypt, it's dark and syrupy; in Morocco, at the back of a dim shop, a young lad made me a delicious Berber brew in a chipped yellow teapot, with a died-and-gone-to-heaven kind of flavour. But my desert island tea would come from Yemen, once famous for its coffee beans (hence mocha, after the trading port Al-Mokha). Its sweet mint tea, boiled up in large copper kettles, is peerless, and in people's homes you might be served cardamom tea. I like my tea simple, but this flavoursome stuff - made not only with cardamom, but condensed milk - is worth living for.

Back in Ireland, in Cork, I'm a regular in Idaho Cafe, where the tea is always good because the bag is Barry's and the pot pre-heated. The Crawford Gallery cafe gets points for using loose leaves, but it isn't always hot enough and the strength varies.

In Dublin - well, the last time I had tea in Bewley's I had to send it back. The Merrion Hotel does it well, what with the strainer and someone to strain it and all, but you'll pay for the privilege.

In Kilkenny, used bathwater would have been tastier than whatever they served with breakfast at the Pembroke Hotel, whereas at Seaview House in Bantry, they'll do an excellent afternoon tea, even if you drop in unexpectedly.

Generally speaking, if there's a china cup, good tea will probably follow, but that's the problem: to get a decent drop of the cheapest drink after tap water, you have to go upmarket.

I'll end on a good cup. A few years ago, I slipped on rocks in Connemara. My other half set about making tea on our burner. He had remembered the gas, milk, even the biscuits, but he'd forgotten to pack the tea. To avoid divorce proceedings, we set off in search of a cuppa - always a challenge. Pubs and hotels are out, so we hoped to find that rare beast, a teashop. Instead, we followed signs to Screebe House.

It looked a bit quiet, but William knocked anyway and asked if there was any chance of . . .? The housekeeper looked at him - this, it turned out, was a hunting lodge open only to private parties - but without even knowing that I'd brained myself on the rocks, she said, oh, all right, come in.

Fifteen minutes later, she served scones, cake, biscuits and the best cup of tea I've ever had. Lovely, but what would this marvellous spread cost? I glanced nervously at the bill: €5.

So it can be done, in rip-off, coffee-drinking Ireland, if the will is there.

In my experience, it isn't.