This article was published in the October 2014 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.
It all started with an email from my sister, who is deep into the process of becoming Australian. She forwarded her invitation to a formal citizenship day ceremony, inviting us to “join her in spirit.” We’re excited for her, but I suppose this means she’s not returning to the United States anytime soon.
The invitation included a note that tea would be served following the ceremony. My other sister, who lives in Minnesota, commented, “I think it’s funny that they serve tea after the ceremony. Will there be crumpets too? Gosh, I love those things.” This set off an email chain about the larger and culturally determined significance of tea.
According to my freshly minted Aussie of a sister, “tea” in Australia means different things depending on the time of day: “morning tea” is the snack that you eat between breakfast and lunch; “afternoon tea” is the nosh you eat between lunch and dinner (it may or may not include tea and could simply be coffee). “High tea,” on the other hand, is a meal all its own and includes crumpets, scones, clotted cream and other refined delicacies.
Since I’ve spent much of my adult life drinking Irish tea, I’d like to offer a different perspective. Whenever we visit my husband Michael’s family in County Down, his mom, step-dad, sisters, brother and brother-in-laws generously offer to pour us a cuppa tea every 30 minutes. In Ireland, it seems, that kettle never stops boiling! When I visit over the Christmas holiday, I drink seven cups a day or more. Indeed, I get my fill for the year!
I learned the hard way that there is an art to making Irish tea. With my first attempt, eager tea drinkers (Michael’s family) took one sip and then dumped out their freshly brewed cups in the sink. Some complained it was too weak, others that I didn’t add enough milk. Try again!
Taking pity, Michael’s brother-in-law, a patient teacher, showed me the tricks. First, fill and switch on the electric kettle (the water boils much faster using one of these simple appliances). Second, set out the tea cups or mugs (be sure to check with everyone requesting tea that you have their special vessel). Third, place enough tea bags inside a metal tea kettle on the stove-top to cover all the tea drinkers (usually this means two to three¾Nambarrie or Punjana¾ tea bags). Fourth, pour boiled water from the electric kettle into the metal kettle. Fifth, switch on the gas and let the tea and hot water mingle for a few minutes (longer if you prefer stronger tea).
Using a tea towel, tightly grasp the handle of the metal kettle while you pour the tea, now honey-colored, into the cups or mugs. Tea seems to taste better when it’s poured into mugs with amusing decorations. In Michael’s family, that includes one with garish floral designs and another, with a photo of the cast of Friends wrapped around its midsection. As you pour, make sure not to overfill the chalices or you may not have room for milk and sugar.
This is the part where things get tricky: No matter how expertly you prepare the tea, it’s important to remember that everyone likes their tea a slightly different way. Some like it black, others prefer it with one sugar or two, and still others favor a combination of tea, sugar and milk.
While it is tempting to take orders ahead of time, this tends to be an exercise in futility, because people often change their minds about how they want their tea depending on the number of cups they already drank that day. If this is their fifth cup of the day, the tea aficionado may only take a splash of milk to avoid more sugar intake (especially if they are a “two sugars” type of person).
So now that your head hurts from processing all of this, holler into the adjoining “good room” (a.k.a. living room for the guests) and ask everyone to shout in their requests. In the end, you may only screw up one cuppa out of the seven you prepare.
Oh, and don’t forget the Mcvities Hobnobs.