Tag Archives: Tea

My drug of choice

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“I thought I’d make a cup of tea”, were the last murmured words of the mother of Janet Frame, NZ writer, as she died in her husband’s arms in the kitchen. They could well be mine… tea for me marks waking up and going to bed, a break mid-morning and that indispensable cup in the afternoon, the cup that cheers when a friend calls, or the one that sustains after a shock or a long day’s retail therapy.

I felt the would-be murderess Mrs McWilliams who shot her enemy Mrs Dick in the Tudor Tea Rooms in Christchurch NZ was a kindred spirit. When she was disarmed after her pot- shot she retorted: “Oh, give me a cup of tea, that’s what I came here for.”
When told that her victim was not dead or even much hurt the redoubtable Mrs McWilliams replied, “Oh isn’t she, what a pity.” (She got seven years jail for her failed attempt to eliminate her enemy)

We can sheet back this country’s addiction to tea to our discoverer Captain Cook, who concocted the first brews from leaves of the manuka tree, which he called, and many still do, the tea tree. He experimented with it in 1769, brewing the leaves in the hope of preventing scurvy, and wrote in his journal ( men write journals – women are downgraded to writing diaries): “The leaves were used by many of us as tea which has a very agreeable bitter scent and flavour when they are recent…. when the infusion was made strong it proved emetic to some in the same manner as green tea.”

In some ways, tea was the answer to coffee… men had gathered to gossip in coffee houses in London and elsewhere, for several centuries, while women had nowhere acceptable to congregate. The first tea-rooms opened in Glasgow in the 1870’s and tea-rooms quickly became as important to women as coffee houses to men in previous centuries.

Afternoon tea at home also became an institution… it was a relaxed time when women took off their corsets before changing into finery for dinner, and wore soft floating tea gowns. The great French food philosopher Brillat-Savarin called afternoon tea: “an extraordinary meal … in that, being offered to persons that have already dined well, it supposes neither appetite nor thirst, and has no object but distraction, no basis but delicate enjoyment…”

I’ll say – and not just for tea but for chocolate cake and shortbread, meringues and cucumber sandwiches. I used to think tea was an occasion just for ladies to enjoy… I couldn’t imagine inviting a man to tea… but then I remembered the delicate courtships conducted over silver tea- pots by the fireside in Edwardian times, and realised what pleasures we have forfeited in our nine to five world. I also wondered if this was the raison d’etre for those loose floating tea gowns… easier for making love?

Portly philanderer, Edward the Seventh used to visit his lady loves for afternoon tea, arriving in an elegant black carriage with his coat of arms on the door. Inside, his inamoratas awaited him. They could be the ravishing Lily Langtry, the Jersey Lily, as famous for her beauty which adorned postcards, as Kim Kardashian is today; or others, like Winston Churchill’s gorgeous mother Jennie, or even Camilla Parker Bowles’, (aka Prince Charles’ second wife) great-grandmother, Mrs Alice Keppel. She was Edward’s mistress for twelve years and was invited to his death-bed by his generous wife, Queen Alexandra.

Afternoon tea for me has never been graced by the presence of king, prince, or even lover… my most un-forgettable afternoon tea was at a Catholic convent in Ipoh, Malaya. The Chinese nuns in this little convent had been accredited to examine children taking GCE, the Cambridge University secondary schools exam, in oral French. So accordingly, I and nine classmates, embarked on the day- long journey in stifling armoured vehicles (to protect us from lurking Chinese bandits) and then by train, from the Cameron Highlands down to Ipoh.

Arriving in the early evening after travelling all day, we went to sleep in a dormitory with other Chinese teenagers who all, to our amazement, managed to get undressed and shower without showing an inch of flesh. This proved quite a challenge to us less inhibited girls trying to do in Rome as the Romans did. The next day we hung around until afternoon in the steamy convent grounds, and then I was first in alphabetical order for the exam.

I was shown into a little room, where a bowing, smiling, gentle little Chinese nun in heavy black horn-rimmed spectacles and starched veil awaited me. It would have been bad enough trying to understand a Chinese person’s French, spoken by someone who had never been to France or met a French person, but worse was to come. She made a cup of tea and offered me a cake, baked especially for us all, she explained in broken English.

So there we were, an Asian nun, performing, not the tea ceremony of her culture, but an adulterated version of a western ritual, and speaking a foreign language to a person who couldn’t make out a word she was saying, and who knew that shortly an even greater ordeal awaited, in which two people who already couldn’t understand each other, were about to embark on a conversation in a language foreign to them both.

But it was the preliminary that almost silenced me. I bit into the cake, and discovered with horror that the nuns knew no more about baking English cakes than they did about speaking French. They had obviously used sawdust held together, not with butter and eggs, but with some sort of inedible glue. With the first bite drying out my mouth and clogging my throat, I realised that now I had to struggle through the whole of this un-eatable culinary disaster, as well as bluff my way through the exam. Each bite nearly choked me, and I still had to look as though it was delicious.

Somehow I got to end of this terrible experience, and there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that if I ate the cake, she would find my school girl French understandable and acceptable to her Chinese ears. I left with us both bowing and smiling, with great good humour, and walked into my classmate waiting to go in. She raised her eye-brows questioningly, and I smiled maliciously, which she optimistically took for re-assurance… later our profane school- girlish post mortems and accusations would have curled the ears of these innocent kindly nuns.

Other teas, with silver teapots, even a white-capped maid, tiers of scrumptious cakes, and lace napkins have never blotted out the memory of this ordeal. And now, a law unto myself, I break all the rules of the English ritual afternoon tea, which is a very different thing to tea ceremonies in parts of the world where tea drinking originated. My most daring break with convention is to put the milk in first, considered so vulgar by generations of tea drinking aficionados.

And having discovered that tea tastes much nicer when the milk goes in first, I have now also discovered that science supports my taste buds. According to research carried out by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2003,”… if milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk and come into contact with the high temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation or degradation of the milk to occur.” There you go, as they say in this country…

I have n’t space to touch on one of the most thrilling aspects of drinking tea, which used to be illegal in this country, and provoked fiery debate by male Members of Parliament; and now since 1981, it’s become illegal again ( MEN !!!). I refer to the innocent pastime of reading the tea leaves… but that is too vast and esoteric a subject for this little blog to tackle!

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Cucumber sandwiches are de rigueur for the ritual English afternoon tea, and very dull they can be too. These I served for a friend’s birthday party, and we gobbled them up… with relish….
Apart from white bread sliced as thinly as possible – even supermarket sliced does the job… you need peeled and thinly sliced cucumber, eight ounces of softened cream cheese, quarter of a cup of mayonnaise, a good sprinkling of onion powder, garlic powder and a pinch of lemon pepper if you have it.
Mix everything except the bread and cucumber, spread the mix on the bread, and arrange the cucumber on top. Cover with another slice of bread also spread with the mixture. Press down firmly, and cut into dainty bite-sized sandwiches. Irresistible.

Food for thought

By experts in poverty I do not mean sociologists, but poor men.
GK Chesterton

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Time for a tea-break

100_0266I have kept my blogging vows: to write regularly, for better or worse – (you be the judge),   for richer for poorer – (mostly poorer), in sickness – (sometimes) and in health, till circumstances do us part.

But recently I’ve let the other half of my blogging commitment slip – the agreement to read and follow and like and comment. Circumstances have been squeezing me, so that I’ve been lagging guiltily behind on this part of the blogging commitment.

So, it feels like time for a tea-break. Thanks to Clanmother recommending the fascinating book: ‘For all the Tea in China’, after reading my blog on tea – I now know I couldn’t make a healthier choice. Apparently wherever tea drinking caught on, those societies became healthier- they were boiling their water for the tea, and didn’t have to slake their thirst with polluted water, beer or wine.

So they remained sober, and sustained by calories in the cheap sugar from the Colonies, and protein in the milk for their tea! It’s even suggested that tea-drinking societies like the British were fifty years ahead in the Industrial Revolution because the workers were kept alert over their machines, having tea-breaks instead of becoming drowsy or sozzled with another sip of wine or beer. (Over dinner last night, a friend described Italian workers falling off the scaffolding after another sip of wine in the blazing heat as they toiled over Brunelleschi’s Dome – he had wine diluted with water brought up to them to save them the long journey up and down !)

So  here’s to: ‘ the cup that cheers but doth not in-ebriate!’  Lapsang Souchong of course !

The circle of friendship in our blogging world never fails to amaze me and move me, and though technology is what has brought us together, in the end, it’s the written word that’s made it possible. As a writer, I treasure the words of Carl Sagan who said that: ”Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, bringing together people who never knew each other, citizens of different epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

For me, it seems that blogging has become the book of life for many of us, the magic of the written word bringing us together in time and space, and showing us how connected we all are. These connections are ties that won’t be broken, even when circumstances, in my case, have dictated a tea-break.

So though this is a break, it is not an ending, and I send to all my dear friends and fellow bloggers, the (Good) witches blessing:

Merry meet, and merry part, and merry meet again!

Food for Thought

Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.                             Virginia Woolf 1882 -1941  Great English novelist

 

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The drug we can’t live without

0000621 “Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.”  I couldn’t agree more with Sidney Smith, an Anglican clergyman, who died in over a hundred and fifty years ago. And as far as I’m concerned it can’t be any old tea. And certainly not a tea-bag, a monstrous invention that I suspect is just tissue paper filled with tea-dust left in the bottom of the tea chest after my proper tea leaves have been packaged.

And for me the only tea worth drinking is Twining’s Lapsang Souchong. It comes from Fujian Province in China. According to the packet: “the delicious smoky flavour is produced by lying the leaves on bamboo trays, and allowing the smoke from pinewood to permeate through them”. Ah, so … other tea now tastes quite crude to me after years of drinking nothing but this brew.

Though the Twining family may be surprised to hear this, I always feel quite connected to them, as I had a great friend who was a Twining, and my former in-laws had lived in a rose- coloured, brick Georgian house built by Elizabeth Twining down by the River Thames. I spent a lot of time there in that beautiful house, very conscious of Elizabeth. The firm of Twinings has been selling tea for three hundred years from premises in The Strand in London, so when the latest head of the Twining family came out to NZ to talk tea, naturally I heeded his instructions on how to make it.

Always happy to take the least trouble, I was delighted to hear from him (on the radio) that we don’t need to heat the tea-pot –  swishing boiling water around the pot before putting the tea-leaves in. Previously it had been an essential part of the ritual of making a pot of tea. But my tea leaves now go into a cold tea-pot. I missed the rest of his talk so I don’t know whether he addressed the thorny problem of milk. To have or not to have – that is the question. Purists don’t. I’m not a purist. I’m a conservative who has had milk in my tea for more than seventy years.

There‘s a further twist to the milk problem – known as MIF. Legend has it (which is not always reliable) that the Royal family refer to people as MIF’s. But I don’t believe this snobbish canard. MIF means exactly that – milk in first. And this is what the late Nancy Mitford used to funningly call non-U.  (U meant upper class, and non-U the opposite!) Milk in first means you’re probably the sort of person who’d lift the port decanter and push it across the table instead of sliding it along clockwise around the table – horrors – or would say: ‘pleased to meet you,’ instead of:’ how do you do!’ – shudders!  Incredibly, when I grew up these snobbish rituals defined the man – or woman.

So for most of my life, I had put the tea in first. But the worm turned about fifteen years ago, when I discovered that the tea tastes much nicer when you do MIF ! This puts me firmly on the wrong side of the tracks – but the bonus is delicious tea.

If I’m offered a cup of tea that I know will not meet my impossible standards of taste and strength – other people’s tea is always too strong for me – I add sugar, and then it becomes something else. Tea out of a mug is not the same as tea out of a bone china flowered cup and saucer. I dread the day when I’m plonked in an old people’s home, and will have no lapsang souchong and no bone china tea-cup.

Life without tea is unthinkable. There was no bombing so bad in the Blitz, that you weren’t offered a cup of tea after it; no shortage of water in the Western desert so tight, that there wasn’t always enough for a pot of tea brewed by the tanks; no misery so deep that a cup of tea doesn’t at least give the sufferer a second’s respite; no cold so deep that a cup of hot tea doesn’t warm the innards;  no thirst so terrible in the tropics, that a cup of tea doesn’t quench it, and no morning in the office so boring that a cup of tea doesn’t briefly break the monotony .

I often jokingly use the poet Cowper’s delicious phrase: ‘the cup that cheers but doth not inebriate!’ My grandmother always had a trolley laid for such a cup – on a lace tea-cloth with two tea-cups and saucers, sugar pot and tea-spoons, and the milk jug covered with a crocheted lace doily weighted with coloured beads. (Milk that wasn’t mucked about with didn’t go sour like it does today!)

In her book ‘Urban Shaman’, American writer CE Murphy writes a delicious description of having a cup of tea: “In Ireland, you go to someone’s house, and she asks you if you want a cup of tea. You say no, thank you, you’re really just fine. She asks if you’re sure. You say of course you’re sure, really, you don’t need a thing. Except they pronounce it ting. You don’t need a ting. Well, she says then, I was going to get myself some anyway, so it would be no trouble. Ah, you say, well, if you were going to get yourself some, I wouldn’t mind a spot of tea, at that, so long as it’s no trouble and I can give you a hand in the kitchen. Then you go through the whole thing all over again until you both end up in the kitchen drinking tea and chatting.

“In America, someone asks you if you want a cup of tea, you say no, and then you don’t get any damned tea. I liked the Irish way better.”

She must have forgotten that the American way with tea is simply to toss it into Boston Harbour!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

This is the perfect cake to have with a cup of tea – if you’re not planning on cucumber sandwiches! It’s the classic French cake with equal quantities of everything. So it’s four eggs, and the same weight of butter, sugar and flour. You can halve the amounts for a smaller cake. Soften the butter, and beat it with the sugar – until it’s almost white and fluffy. Add the eggs whole, one at a time and beat. If it starts to look grainy, add a spoonful of sieved flour. When all the eggs are in, fold in the flour a spoonful at a time, using a metal spoon.

Add enough milk to make a soft smooth mixture which drops off the spoon. Stir in the grated rind of half a lemon. Gently push into a buttered cake tin, the base lined with greaseproof paper, and bake in a moderate oven around 180 degrees. Bake for fifty minutes … if it’s still soft and hissing, cook for another ten minutes.

Leave the cake in the tin for a few minutes, and then tip onto a rack to cool. I make a butter icing for this, soft butter, icing sugar and lemon juice and the other half of the grated lemon rind, all beaten together.
Food for Thought

Development cannot fly in the face of happiness; development should promote human happiness, love and human relati0ns between parents and children and friends. Life is the most important  treasure we have and when we fight, we must fight for human happiness.” Jose Mujica, President of Uruguay at the Rio Conference


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