By Patrick O’Sullivan
Marbh le tae agus marbh gan e. Dead from the tea and dead without it. This was a proverb that was more than familiar to my grandmother and her generation.
It also illustrates how popular tea drinking had become among the ordinary people, though as late as the 1880s tea was still virtually unknown in many parts.
At first tea was scarce and expensive as it was again during the war years.
My grandmother clearly had memories of this, which was why she received a gift of a packet of tea with such great delight.
She drank the tea from a favourite cup, her wafer thin china cups, reserved for special occasions.
Some of the oldest jugs an old country dressers had Chinese motifs of tea and tea making, pagodas and plantations filling in the background.
Our neighbour, Mary, lived in a little thatched cottage nearby, her garden famous for its lilacs and old roses in the summer time.
Mary was another great lover of tea, though it was something of a ritual with her never to accept a cup of tea at the first offering. She had to be pressed more than once before she finally gave way.
Those who knew her well, however, knew that this was par for the course: it was just her way, they said. There was nothing as homely, reassuring though, as the singing of the kettle on the hearth on long winter nights. Then the flames were orange and bright, the kettle suspended over them.
Our kettle was something of a family heirloom that had come down the generations, the heavy weight of it counter-balanced by the elegance of the spout and the fluted cover. The hanger for it had a series of holes which meant that the height of the kettle over the fire might be readily adjusted. Looking back it seems as if tea and the making of it was as much talked of as the weather.
My aunt Rita liked weak tea for instance and I think this was why she thought everyone else must surely like it too. She added the tea leaves sparingly, giving the tea barely time to draw before pouring it into the cups, a slice of jam sandwich or Victoria sponge, a favourite choice as a treat. We children loved her tea and cake. It made no difference to us whether the tea was weak or strong, but such things, it seemed, mattered a great deal to the grown ups at a time when strong tea was generally the norm.
This, of course, was long before the arrival of the tea bag, a development that was greeted with some suspicion by the connoisseurs of old. Tea was made from loose leaf tea which came in packets, the latter weighed from tea in tea chests by the shopkeepers of the day.
The tea chest was a familiar sight in those days. Lined with foil as it was, to preserve and protect the fragrance of the tea, thus preventing contamination with other scents such as that of oranges for instance. It was a familiar thing for the woman of the house to ask the shopkeeper to keep the tea chest for her when it was empty for it could of course be put to a myriad of uses.
It might serve for storing clothes, or unwanted clutter, sometimes adapted too to serve the needs of a hatching hen. It even served as a playpen when called upon to do so, the accusation that ‘all of their crowd were reared in the tay chest’ a jibe still heard in places even today.
There were many who bemoaned the demise of the loose tea. I heard a woman on local radio say that when she asked for loose tea in a supermarket, the assistant looked at her as if she had two heads.
The champions of loose leaf tea claim that while the tea bag may be more convenient, it has none of the flavour of its loose counterpart. I still remember tea served in fine, old willow ware, the morning of the stations, the lovely gold rims of the cups and saucers catching the glow of the firelight still.
The wonderful blue of the cups was the blue of bluebells in springtime so that they looked like pictures in storybooks, each with a charm of its own. The fine art of tea was, of course, the fine art of conversation too, for wherever there was tea there was sure to be banter and chat, or the sharing of burdens again. It was almost as if tea and the making of it was at the very heart of the human experience as if it were part and parcel of life and living then.
I remember Mary sitting by the fire drinking her tea with relish and when pressed to have another cup then saying with a smile at last, ‘Ah, sure, another small drop if you please.’ Tea, in its way, was the tangible expression of all that was homely and warm, the singing of the kettle again like a promise of things to come.