When the cup of tea was your only man



WHEN my father would get, in that wonderfully old-fashioned sense of the word, vexatious — het up over nothing — my mother would say to him: “Sit down there EK and I’ll put the kettle on.” And he would say to her: “You know, your problem — you think the world begins and ends with a cup of tea.” She probably did: she thought it a panacea for all ills, whereas for him the world was a darker place, where he spent a lifetime dealing with his demons.
I am reminded of all this because of a report that sales of kettles have dropped off in traditionally tea-mad Ireland (and Britain too) — about a million in the last few years, despite a rise in sales for small kitchen appliances.
Putting the kettle on for a ‘cuppa’ has been a standard of us all since long before the electric kitchen appeared. But sales of the kettle have fallen in favour of other devices, such as coffeemakers and built-in hot water taps, says a report from global research firm Intel.
It seems we are increasingly discarding the benevolent brew — drinking tea is actually better for you than drinking water, says nutritionists because of its antioxidants — in favour of the burgeoning skills of the barista.
The massive growth of coffee shops and increased sales in coffee makers is evidence of this. (There was a woman once on our road who had to seek treatment for her coffee addiction which found her most days crawling up the walls. Mind you, she had eight children but her husband was a pharmacist, so they should have known better.)
It would be hard to imagine a world without tea. The drinking of it, despite my father’s protestations, plays such a central part in our lives: it is a universal phenomenon with millions the world over enjoying their cuppa on a daily basis. While the Eastern world has been using tea for more than 4,500 years, for most of that time the heady brew was unknown in this neck of the woods.
Tea was only introduced into the West a relatively recent 400 years ago. Discovered in China, the drinking of the boiled leaves has since exerted a profound influence on societies throughout the world, so that there are still to this day unique ceremonies in various cultures which entail social etiquettes concerning the preparation and drinking of tea as well as customs regarding how, when and where to drink it. Tea has always accompanied and even influenced the unfolding of key historical events — to wit the Queen of England’s annual garden party, and the sipping of such when Michael D went calling before this time of the corona virus.
While we may be drinking less of your common-or-garden brew, it seems, says the same research, that flavoured Chinese teas such as Jasmine and Rose Petal in the last decade or so have hugely influenced an acquired taste for concoctions such as apple and lemon, strawberry (yuck!) and kiwi tea as an alternative to your bog-standard brew.
While I need my two cups of good coffee in the morning to get my engine fired up, I am partial to green tea and all the goodness it entails and have also in the last decade discovered the pleasures of rooibos tea, indigenous to South Africa. In that country, get this, ants are used to help harvest the small seeds used to make the rooibos tea.
In the 1930s Benjamin Ginsberg, a Russian immigrant, was the first person to develop rooibos as a product, paying local villagers to collect the seeds, a shilling for a matchbox full.
One Khoi (the original Bush people from the Kalahari Desert) woman came back with her matchboxes more often than anyone else — many, many times a day. Eventually, she divulged her secret: one day, she had noticed a certain type of black ant carrying the seed back to its colony. Breaking open the nest, she discovered an ant granary full of seed. And so commercial rooibos cultivation took off, but it probably wouldn’t have been possible without the painstaking industrialism of the tiny ant.
I wonder what my late mother would have made of all this?
In her latter years when I’d pop in unexpectedly and then enquire if she had eaten, she would say: “I’m grand — I had a cup of tea and a bit of bread ‘n’ butter.”
I guess with age comes a lessening of appetite but for the cuppa there was still some sympathy…

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