In the early 1980s, my day job was in the gardening department of a London publisher of what used to be called “coffee table books”. In the Atlantic Isles coffee was, even then, a vaguely foreign beverage, an element in the sophisticated, cosmopolitan “lifestyles” of people who had bidets, duvets and books as big as tables in their design-conscious homes. For the common or garden majority of us, tea still ruled as the default, everyday beverage. So when the Tippex-encrusted typescript of my first novel was rejected with a scrawled “Not my cup of tea!” I wasn’t too demoralised. It was an honest response and, with a bit of luck, I could hope, eventually, to find a publisher’s reader with compatible tea specifications.
But how and why did the British and Irish become so collectively and individually addicted to tea, rather than coffee? The most obvious answer lies in the East – first China, then India and Ceylon – where British merchants operating under the auspices of colonial institutions, notably the East India Company, did their business. Crucially, it was at roughly the same time that the entrepreneurs of the West Indies were making a killing – in more ways than one – in slave-grown sugar. Until very recently, our precious daily cuppas have been inseparable from sugar and milk.
Tea began as an expensive, élite taste, a luxury import that went with other luxuries such as silver tea pots, jugs and spoons, porcelain cups and saucers, and gilded mahogany tea-tables. It was a mildly stimulating, mildly addictive beverage for sober, genteel folk in general, and ladies in particular. In Britain, the taste for tea trickled rapidly down the social scale, replacing what was called “small beer” (low alcohol homebrews), as well as traditional herbal and hedgerow infusions (some of which have staged a comeback). In England, the mass consumption of Chinese tea in the late eighteenth century coincided with the disruption of old rural ways of life. In fact, tea, which requires boiled and therefore relatively safe water, was probably a life-saver as well as a life-enhancer for the huddled masses of the new industrial and insanitary cities. Another factor in tea’s popularity was that it could be “stretched”, i.e. diluted and even re-used, by the people who increasingly depended on it to get them through long hard days. Tea became so integral to everyday lives that in parts of England and Ireland the noun “tea” is still synonymous with a full meal.
In Ireland, the story of tea began the same way – as an élite thing – but it wasn’t until the mid 19th century, roughly a hundred years later than Britain, that it had established itself as an item of everyday consumption. To start with, tea was a special treat, something for Sundays and big occasions – Christmas, Easter, St Patrick’s Day, Halloween – as well as wakes and weddings. Ireland was still an overwhelmingly rural society and the taste for tea went with a taste for white baker’s bread, available from the new grocery stores, where tea was often exchanged for eggs. Again, sugar was a major component of tea’s appeal. “Tay wather” was appreciated as a sustaining, cheering drink, something to get you going first thing, and keep you going until your next “square meal”. And there was something reassuringly familiar about the milky element. One way or another, milk has always been important in Ireland, where, traditionally, cattle were reared for dairy produce rather than meat. Our mythical warriors feasted on pork and venison, not beef. Indeed, it was a bit of a head-slapping moment for me, when I realized why it is that cinematic cowboys, despite their name, never seemed to have any milk to go with their coffee – range cattle being beef cattle, duh!
Gradually, we all acquired a taste for “real” coffee – as opposed to the instant stuff – and some of us even learned how to make it. Now the land is flowing with cappuccino and the like, as well as all manner of herbal infusions, but for those of us who grew up in the era of tea-totalism there is, still, nothing quite as restorative as a cup of tea. And as the conflict between Britian and Ireland evolves into an historical matter, we have all the more reason to celebrate the persistence of our joint incontrovertible and uncontroversial love of tea! Even so, there are subtle differences in our ways with tea. I have a vivid memory of a friend’s return to my house after a visit to some English friends of hers in another part of London. She was dying for a cup of tea because, having declined the first offer of a cuppa from her English host, she received no more. Big mistake! In Ireland, you can safely and politely decline the host’s first offer of tea because the offer will be repeated again, and again, until you’re ready for it. But that’s only if you’re there for more than an hour, and in any case the “rules” are quite different for coffee…