As I am every bit as busy this week as expected, have this wee snippet for your reading entertainment:
Descartes had it all wrong. I think, therefore I am? Whatever. Round these parts, I prefer: I drink tea, therefore I am. Or even: I am Irish, therefore I drink tea.
It has become clear to me recently that some people not from around here (I’m looking at you, Americans) have a misconception or six about my country’s beverage of choice. This cannot be allowed to continue, so let’s put the kettle on and sort this out, shall we?
Misconception the First: Irish People Drink Guinness
Stereotypes would have you believe that Irish people look askance at those who don’t drink alcohol. While this may be the case, it’s nothing in comparison to the suspicion levelled on someone who doesn’t drink tea. What kind of person doesn’t drink tea? What is this not drinking tea? How does that even work?
Tea is ubiquitous. We drink tea in the morning for breakfast, we take a cuppa into the office, have a mug after lunch. If you’re looking sad, I’ll pop the kettle on. Good news requires tea to celebrate. Nervous or worried about something? Tea. Working hard? Tea. Need to relax? Tea. Visit someone’s house? Tea- and nothing matches the consternation of a host who’s just been told that their visitor doesn’t fancy a cup. What are we supposed to do now?! Better brew up a nice soothing
cup mug just to take the edge off.
There Are No Teas. There is Tea.
There are three little words you’ll never hear in Ireland- and no, I’m not talking about our nationwide inability to talk about our feelings when we haven’t had a brace of pints to loosen us up. I’m talking about this: Irish Breakfast Tea.
We do not have Breakfast Tea in Ireland. We have Tea.
Likewise, I’ve been asked all sorts of questions about teas by people from outside here, with the assumption that I’ll have some kind of insider knowledge into the latest herbal or fruity hot water concoction. NOPE. Herbal teas may be lovely, but they are not Tea.
You Are Your Tea. Your Tea Is You.
There are three kinds of Tea. There is Barry’s Tea. There is Lyons Tea. And there is That Other Own-Brand Shite You Bought Because You Thought It Would Be A Good Idea To Save Money, What Were You Even Thinking Though?
Outsiders might have trouble distinguishing these three. You might think that they all taste the same. You might even think that the own-brand stuff is perfectly good and maybe even a little nicer.
Do not say this out loud in Ireland. To an Irish person, our brand of tea- Barry’s or Lyons?- is not simply a beverage. It is who we are. You pick a side, and you stick with it. We defend our tea with the kind of loyalty and partisanship normally reserved for major sporting events or centuries-old religious differences. Non-Irish would have you believe that the major divisions in our country are, in fact, on sporting, religious and political grounds. Those people have never seen a Barry’s drinker offered a cup of Lyons.
This, of course, does not mean it’s okay to refuse a cup of your least favourite brand of tea when offered it. Irish etiquette demands that you drink that tea while silently judging your host and making no outward sign of anything other than appreciation, before badmouthing their complete lack of taste behind their back. It’s only polite.
How Do You Take It?
Okay. You’ve arrived in Ireland having fully researched which brand of tea you are going to stick to like glue for your time here. Or maybe you just flipped a coin to decide your future loyalty. You think that armed with a rock-solid belief that Lyons is the only thing worth drinking and everything else is mud and shite (you filthy Lyons-drinking blasphemer, you), you can earn the respect of the locals.
If you still think that “how do you take your tea?” is a perfectly innocuous question, then I wonder if you’ve been reading this at all. A nation that divides itself along nigh-identical brands of black tea is not going to be deterred from judging you based on every other aspect of your cuppa.
My old Nana used to take her tea weak. She had style. She had grace. She was a classy lady (who knew that there was only one way to get through the dozen or so cups of an average day).
I take my tea strong. I’m a straight-talkin’ woman who takes no crap from nobody, and so is my cuppa.
Strong tea is nurses and builders tea- the stuff gulped down by people who work with their hands in between driving trucks, carrying giant slabs of concrete with their bare hands or lifting patients. Strong tea powers the working wo/man and doesn’t have time to muck about.
Weak tea is for classy ladies and gents who have the time to sip.
Sugar is not simply sugar. Sugar is a sign of your constitution- are you someone with an iron will who cares nothing for such fripperies as pleasure and sees all kinds of enjoyment as vaguely decadent? You’ll want to drink your tea without, then. Do you see yourself as a balanced, responsible person who enjoys a treat now and then? That’ll be a single spoon for you. Have you reached the stage of your life where you couldn’t give a rat’s ass what people think? Pile on the spoons and watch eyes widen as you go beyond the respectable-yet-indulgent two spoons and into the land of ultimate sweetness. People will gasp. There will be disbelief. People will talk- if you take four spoons, then what else do you do? What do you get up to behind closed doors? Take four or more spoons, and people will definitely want to come to your parties.
You may think that strength and sugar were bizarrely loaded topics. You ain’t seen nothing yet. Did you know that ’round these parts, we can tell a person’s class background simply by observing when they add the milk to their tea?
To look at me, you would think that I am a fairly (culturally) middle-class individual. I have the MA under my belt, work in a job that requires a degree, am the child of two academics, and when I am broke I grow my own strawberries. And yet, if you give me a pot of tea and a jug of milk, when I pour my cup I put in the milk first.
Adding the milk first when you drink tea from a pot, you see, is a sure sign that one comes from the lower socioeconomic echelons of society. People from the more privileged classes would never do such a thing- it’s tea first, milk after (or maybe not at all- a sign that one can truly afford the most delicate blends, and also that you’re not afraid to point that fact out without a word).
The question of tea-milk order is not solely one of class, though. To add the tea first shows that you are a careful individual. You need to know precisely how strong the tea is coming out of the teapot, to determine exactly how much milk you require. You don’t want to risk having too little milk and needing to add more- or, worse still, drinking tea with too much milk. As for the milk-firsters? Milk first shows a devil may care attitude, throwing caution to the wind and taking what life throws at you with a grin.
There’s one thing that tea-first and milk-first people can all agree on, though. Is is blasphemy of the worst kind to add the milk to a cup before the teabag. There is actually a practical reason for this: tea brews best at the highest temperatures possible. The closest you can get that water to 100 degrees, the more delicious your tea will be. This is, by the way, why tea brewed in the cosy, insulated environment of a pot (perhaps covered with a nice tea cosy) is the best. Brewing tea in a cup is less delicious, but far more practical if you’re just making it for yourself, but it’s important to take care to keep everything as hot as it can be. Adding the milk to a mug first creates a pathetic, lukewarm environment and terrible tea. Adding the milk first when you’re making tea for a guest? You’ll be glad to know we outlawed capital punishment in this country decades ago, cause otherwise you might want to start worrying.
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