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A Whole Lotta Rosie (Lee)

By Patrick Van Roy On September 25th, 2020

Guest Post by Seimi

Some twenty years ago, I pulled up to the doors of a small community hall, in a townland somewhere in the wilds of Cork. It was a dark, blustery night and, although not cold, the threat of rain hung in the air, and my two colleagues and I were glad to have reached our penultimate destination for the day, having driven approximately 150 miles that day and chaired three meetings in various other parts of the county on the way. I couldn’t wait to get to the hotel after this meeting, exchange my suit for something less constrictive and enjoy a quiet pint or two before bed. 

Upon entering the hall, we were greeted by a small group of locals, headed by a little woman in her seventies, in a long tweed coat and matching hat. One of my colleagues had met her before, and greeted her warmly. She smiled at us each in turn, shook our hands and marvelled at the fact that I was from Belfast. The wonder of it! All the way from Belfast!

“You’ll take a cup of tea, before we begin,” she stated. Not asked. Stated. I took a deep breath. I had been warned about this, her nickname being ‘Cupán Tae’ – Cup of Tea.

“Máire,” I said ( for ‘twas her name) “I won’t, thank you. I don’t really like tea. Would you have any coffee?”

The world stood still. Máire stared at me for what seemed like a lifetime, as if, as Peter Kay might say, I had walked into her house on Christmas Day and pissed on her kids.

“You don’t…like…tea?” The words sounded alien, coming from her, as if she knew what they all meant, but had never heard them in this particular order before.

“You don’t like tea? She repeated, her mind struggling to make this concept take root in some dark recess.

“No,” I smiled sheepishly. “I’ve been to three meetings today already, and I was given tea at each of them. I drank it, to be polite, but I really don’t like it, and I wouldn’t want to start our first meeting by being dishonest to you and drinking tea I wouldn’t thank you for. I would thank you for some coffee though.”

This blatant buttering up seemed to do the trick, and she rallied magnificently, sending her minions scuttling off to every corner of the hall to locate coffee. They failed, and I made do with a glass of water, though she did have coffee for me a year later, when I next met her, but that’s another story.

I apologise for the rather long preface to this post, but I thought it a useful and appropriate anecdote to illustrate just how ingrained in the Irish – and even more so, the English – psyche, tea is. There isn’t a problem in the world, certainly not around Albert Square, which can’t be solved by a ‘nice cuppa tea.’ Irish people go to visit their neighbours for a ‘cup o’ tea in your hand.’ Every Irishman knows the right (and wrong) way to pour a good pint of Guinness, but the debate on how to make a proper cup of tea – milk in cup first or last; sugar in with the milk, before the milk, after the tea but before the milk; what is the correct colour etc etc – has raged for generations. There is an old Irish saying: Marbh le tae, marbh gan é – Dead from tea, dead without it. The Americans even got in on the act, although in their case it was in protest at the crippling taxes levied on the stuff. For over 150 years, the East India Company’s main business was in tea, not spices, and it was to help them financially that tea remained so heavily taxed in America following the repeal of the Townshend duties, which led to the events in Boston in December, 1773.

 

What discontents, what dire events,

From trifling things proceed?

A little Tea, thrown in the Sea,

Has thousands caused to bleed.

 

I recently re-read a book by the excellent Bill Bryson, in which he looked at the subject of tea and its history. Much of the following two paragraphs is gleaned from his work on the subject (though not plagiarised! One has one’s standards!) 

When it was first introduced (which we will look at shortly), some people were unsure what to do with tea. An English poet once wrote of a woman residing in the country, who was sent a packet of tea as a present from a friend in the city. This being her first time trying it, she invited her friends round, boiled up the leaves and served it to them, spread on bread with a little salt.

At the time, the vast majority of tea was imported from China, who jealously guarded the secrets of its growing and processing. Indeed, the punishment in some places for revealing these secrets was execution. But in the 1840s, an intrepid, and it must be said, extremely brave Scotsman named Robert Fortune, spent three years travelling around China, gathering just that information. He spoke none of the Chinese languages or dialects, but somehow got away with it, by always pretending to be from some distant province, where they spoke a different language.

Fortune’s work resulted in 20,000 tea plants being planted in India, and the rest is history. 

Most people have their favourite brands. I have committed several faux pas in Séimí Towers, once when I brought back from the shop what was, I was informed in no uncertain terms, an inferior brand, and another time when I, in a hotel, unwittingly added milk to a cup of Earl Grey tea (well I didn’t know it’s drunk black!)

It has taken me nigh on fifteen years, but I have perfected Herself’s tea. Very rarely will I bring her a cup which doesn’t meet with her approval. The problem with this is, I now make everyone else’s tea like hers, and everybody I know likes their tea differently. Some with so many sugars, the spoon stands up; some with the teabag left in; some who prefer it made just with leaves; some who only ask for the bag to be shown to the water – a medium-to-rare cup, if you will – which looks grey and weak: tea with the life scared out of it, as I like to call it. The point is, though, that because I don’t drink the stuff myself, I am only really guessing at how to properly make it.

But why all this talk of tea, you may, quite reasonably, ask? All this history and diverting anecdotes is dashed interesting, and all that, but what is the purpose? Well, I’ll tell you.

Today, September 25th, is a special day. On this day, 360 years ago, a young British naval officer called Samuel Pepys, wrote,

“And afterwards, I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before.”

What Pepys thought of his first cuppa, we shall never know, but what we do know is this: this, my friends, is the very first mention of tea in the English language.

So, put on the kettle, warm the pot, grab your Hob nobs (Ooh, Matron!), have yourself a cup of Darjeeling, or whatever your favourite flavour is and drink a toast to the warm beverage P.G. Wodehouse called “…the vital oolong,” which he “…clutched at…like a drowning man to a straw hat.”

Me? I’ll just have a coffee. Cheers!

20 Responses to “A Whole Lotta Rosie (Lee)”

  1. I, like you, make the Missus two cups of Irish Breakfast tea every morning. She insists that I can make it better than she does. I think our girls like that little show of love! 🙂

  2. Would it be true that Britain and Ireland over the past say 40 or 50 years have become less tea drinking countries, and have become more coffee drinking nations, as the US has long been?

    Tea is still more common than in the US there I believe, but coffee is everywhere now and I don’t think that it used to dominate that way

  3. I drink Earl Grey at night with a bit of lemon, but I go through about 3 pots of coffee in a day.

  4. I, like you, make the Missus two cups of Irish Breakfast tea every morning. She insists that I can make it better than she does. I think our girls like that little show of love! 🙂

    Is it love, or is it laziness on their part? 😉
    BTW Charles – I saw your email. Apologies, I’ll respond later.

    Would it be true that Britain and Ireland over the past say 40 or 50 years have become less tea drinking countries, and have become more coffee drinking nations, as the US has long been?

    I’m not sure about any figures, but coffee was certainly around before tea. There were (according, again, to Bill Bryson) somewhere in the region of 50 coffee houses in London at the time tea was introduced, although the quality wouldn’t have been very good, as it was brewed all at once, stored in barrels and then re-heated when ordered.
    Tea was also very popular in the States, up until the events of the Boston Tea Party. I have often wondered what part that played in the US affection for coffee over tea. Is it even a factor?

    I drink Earl Grey at night with a bit of lemon, but I go through about 3 pots of coffee in a day.

    First of all, thanks for posting. I know it’s not a political piece or anything, but when I first read about this entry in Pepys’s diary a few years back, I promised myself I would mark the occasion, but forgot every year. I’m glad I remembered this time.
    I really don’t like tea. It’s like coffee that just isn’t trying hard enough. I love my coffee. I know I drink far too much of it, and recently, I switched to de-caff, which lasted two days. I felt completely drained of energy! I had to go back to the real stuff 🙂

  5. I think it’s just that more people like the taste and effect of coffee over tea.

    A good hot tea is a fine thing, but I can go three months without having one.

    Cold, unsweetened tea, I drink all the time. I stopped drinking cokes years ago, and switched to iced tea. Just drop a teabag in a water bottle, chill in the fridge, and you get a better drink than what you’d pay a lot more for in the store. Recommended.

  6. Cold, unsweetened tea, I drink all the time. I stopped drinking cokes years ago, and switched to iced tea. Just drop a teabag in a water bottle, chill in the fridge, and you get a better drink than what you’d pay a lot more for in the store. Recommended.

    *Boke*

  7. A piece does not have to be political. A well written and interesting view is always enjoyable.

  8. Reminds me of a story of the first time i ever went to Poland.
    I drink black tea. No milk or sugar. I always have. I don’t drink coffee at all. Tried it but it’s not for me.
    At the time i didn’t speak much Polish although i knew that Tea was Herbata.
    The first cafe i went into i asked for Herbata and pointed pathetically at the black jumper i was wearing.
    Got the message through.
    Anyway, they brought out this contraption that looked like a full ball strainer with huge thick Tea leaves in it and a pot of hot water. The leaves were more like small tree branches.
    Figured it out that you poured the water over the leaves into the cup.
    It was delicious.
    I’m usually the sort of person who just buys whatever tea bags are going cheap in the Spar.
    I discovered later that Black Tea in Poland is actually a brand.
    Now i have it shipped over or go on a quick trip down to my local Karolina Sklep.
    Highly recommended if your’re ever in the best country in the world.

  9. The chief imperative for making tea, decreed sternly by my otherwise gentle mother when I was knee-high, is “FIRST HATE THE TAYPOT”.

    I’ve taught that to my wife (continentals haven’t a clue how to make tea. If you order tea in some cafes you actually get a glass of lukewarm water and a teabag lying on the saucer beside it. Yes, they’re serious.) who in turn gave her mother strict instructions when I was visiting, who later in turn told neighbours and family. So there’s now at least a small oasis of proper tea-makers in Slovenia, who all insist on first “hating the taypot”. That’s the way culture spreads.
    The idea is that it’s essential that the water is at boiling point the moment it touches the tea and must not cool down quickly.

    The tea/coffee divide in Europe is interesting. The wine-growing regions corrrespond roughly to the Catholic-Protestant divide, which in turn roughly corresponds to the former regions of the Roman Empire versus the parts never conquered by Rome. But tea vs coffee is linked to former trading routes in the old days of sail. Thus you can get a good cup of tea in England, Holland and the northern German cities of Bremen and Hamburg. But tea is practically unknown or undrinkable in Italy, France, Austria and Switzerland and southern Germany etc.

    Ireland is the 3rd highest consumer per capita in the world, much higher than Britain and China. But Turkey and Russia are the big tea drinkers (as is Iran and India of course.) Much as I’m partial to Irish and English tea, there is nothing to beat sitting in a Turkish cafe and being served small glass after small glass of strong and delicious black Turkish tea from this copper double-pot arrangement they use. I once bought one at a flea market and a load of Turkish tea, but unless you want to stand at the stove for a quarter of an hour or so, it’s a bit too much effort in the modern world so I gave away my caydanlık.
    Tea is a central part of Turkish culture and hospitality. When I see a crowd of Turks out having a barBQ or picknic, I often stop for a chat because I know they will very soon be pressing a glass of their special tea, which always seems to taste even better outdoors, into your hand.

    Damn Corona!

  10. When I visit Ireland there is a diplomatic requirement to call in on neighbors for, you guessed it, tea. I drink more cups in 2 weeks than I do the rest of the year.

  11. Water in first, then you pour the milk down the sink. Tea and coffee should be drunk as they are and not tarnished with cow juice.

    There’s a theory that it’s known as tea if it spread by sea or chai if spread by land (or variants of those words). Map:

    https://i.redd.it/7fr912modst41.jpg

  12. Black Tea Matters.

  13. First time in ATW history Pete Moore has preferred something black.

  14. it lives……. where ya been hiding Mahons?

  15. I drink black tea and black coffee, wouldn’t dream of polluting them with milk.

    Seimi, your Cork lady reminded me of Mrs Doyle in Father Ted
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N20wHvMPTGs

  16. Peter

    Yeah, there are Mrs. Doyles all over Ireland, and Cupán Tae was one of them 🙂

  17. Seimi

    I think I read somewhere that the Chinese developed tea as a solution to dirty water which was unfit to drink. So they avoided water-borne diseases. In Europe the colder climate led to beer as a solution to the dirty water problem, because brewed beer was guaranteed to be free of diseases. So we have records of “small beer” being drunk from a thousand years ago, small as in 2% or less ABV. I seem to recall characters in Jane Austen novels drinking this stuff at breakfast, but it wasn’t because they were alcoholics, it was because they didn’t want to get cholera.

  18. Seimi.

    I enjoyed reading that mate. Thanks.

  19. An epic post!

    Strong, sweet tea for breakfast with a fry, toasted soda, bap etc. Anything else I can take or leave. If the tea is to be made by bag/ cup method then the bag should go into the cup followed by hot water and firmly pressed by the spoon to ensure strength. The bag should then be extraxcted and two sppons of suger along with the smallest of drops of milk just to ensure a dark brown colour should be added.

    Some who only ask for the bag to be shown to the water – a medium-to-rare cup, if you will – which looks grey and weak: tea with the life scared out of it, as I like to call it.

    These type of ‘tea’ so called drinkers are evil bastards and should be burned alive.

  20. I’ve gone from favouring tea over coffee and vice versa all my life.
    I make tea by putting the bag in the cup, adding the water and letting it brew and then I add just the tiniest splash of milk. No sugar, that’s absolutely disgusting.
    I find as I’m getting older I’m preferring black tea and coffee.