A taste for tea

An Irishwoman’s Diary: The rot began with maddening advertisements for cheap and cheerful teabags

One of the senior Irish Press group editors used to sit hunched over a pile of telex copy at the apex of the subs’ desk, and hiss like spit hitting hot cinders. “Lech &x%£@*€ Walesa,” he would go, or if the story was about the German chancellor, “Schhhteeel Helmut Kohl.” And we’re off, him sucking on the smoke of the sulphuric acid cigarettes he brought home from East Germany and raging about his nemeses.

However fervid his contempt for political slybootses, it was nothing to his feelings about the shameful practice of making tea by pouring boiling water on teabags.

“The taste of paper!” he would rave. “Tea dust! Disgusting!”

Working in benighted Dublin had one compensation: tea companies made special blends for the Irish taste – delicate, subtle blends of of Assam, Ceylon and east African leaves.

As other newspapermen dumped doubtful water from canteen boilers on teabags lurking in tannin-brown mugs; he would make a proper pot of tea, rejoicing in the sweet Dublin water and the lovely blend.

Then tragedy struck. One morning he made a pot of tea using a new packet, and sat there, tongue wiping the taste away from lips turned down in disgust.

“They’ve changed the blend!”

He went home and wrote the tea company a stiff note.

The rot had begun, with maddening advertisements for cheap and cheerful teabags, involving dancing icons of conformity in cartoonish form. And so it went.

The other day I went to make my morning cuppa, and because I absent-mindedly started to polish my shoes while the kettle was on, the water boiled. The taste was metallic, flat. By reverse memory, it brought me back to my old editor – and to my father’s tea ceremony.

“Never let the kettle boil,” my father said, swirling hot water around the blue interior of the brown Bewley’s teapot. He emptied and dried it, put a palm-full of black tea leaves in and let them open in the warmth as the kettle hummed.

“Just before it reaches the boil, the sound deepens and softens,” he said. “Take it off straightaway, and pour the water on.” He took the kettle off the hob and poured, drawing the kettle up so the almost-boiling water arced onto the tea leaves. Leave the tea for four minutes so the flavour perfumes the infusion, he said, and serve it in china to complement the flavour.

It is getting harder to find leaf tea outside specialist shops; while Superquinn and Dunne’s have Barry’s and Campbell’s Irish-blended teas, both Lidl and Aldi hold to the dark side.

Our ancestors would have been gobsmacked to see us making tea from paper bags. Arriving in Ireland in the mid-17th century, tea was seized on with fervour. By the end of the 18th century pamphleteers preached against its expense. “We never were used to tea, and would not choose that our little girl should get a notion of any such thing,” says a worthy peasant in an 1813 pamphlet. “The hankering after a drop of tea keeps many poor all their lives.”

The Irish were crazy for tea. Hospitals prescribed it. "In [1870s/80s] Galway, even the poorest families would purchase nothing but the finest quality tea: 'the best teas that are sold anywhere in the United Kingdom are sold in the west of Ireland'," says Leslie Clarkson and Margaret Crawford's Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 . In 1904 "in rural Ireland, tea and sugar accounted for almost 20 per cent of food expenditure".

Carleton denounced it; Edgeworth described women after a ball gossiping over “a raking pot of tea”. It entered the language of Irish metaphor – so strong you could trot a mouse on it, or so weak you’d take it outside for fear it would faint.

Getting back to the anguish of my editor whose blend had been destroyed, a couple of weeks after his stiff note he came in triumphantly waving a letter – from the blender himself, who had enclosed several pounds of personally blended tea.

But his had been the only letter. Nobody else had noticed, or had cared to write and complain.

He sat at the desk, drooping, too horrified even to care about the tempting stories of Walesa and Kohl, and even Maggie Thatcher, that we laid in front of him. He had seen the future, and it didn’t work. It was the beginning of the end of Irish tea connoisseurship.

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