For the longest time, I have been having a bit of a challenge with something that some people might find a bit ridiculous – although it is surprising how many people agree with me when I mention this little peculiarity of mine. You see, I have a problem with tea cups or the receptacles that tea is served in.
Being of Irish descent tea is not just something you drink but the answer to all problems. Whether you are tired, emotional, upset, happy, celebrating or just thirsty – tea is the go-to source of comfort and satisfaction.
In many countries, and traditions, the making and sharing of tea is hugely important. And along with the tea – the hot refreshing liquid – the means by which it is enjoyed is equally important. Tea ceremonies in the far east are seen as meditations in their own right – and albeit that I grew up in England - the ritual of tea as a welcome - or a marker of time or an event or whatever was going on -was not lost on me.
I still remember vividly the days visiting relatives in Ireland who – no matter how many houses you had been to - and no matter how many cups of tea or slices of cake you had consumed – insisted that you have just a little more. I soon learnt that it would be considered rude and ungracious to refuse. And so, a day with lots of people to see would often leave you bloated and bursting from all of that amber liquid.
When I was child I was rather partial to the odd spoon of sugar or three in my tea. Back then no one had any idea of the dangers of sugar or the effect it would have on your system. Add to that biscuits, or big slices of sugary cakes, or home-made soda breads covered in thick butter and rich sticky sugary jams and you had recipes for sugar overloads the like of which can only be shuddered at.
Like so many, I chuckle at the wonderful character of Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, but that imploring voice insisting that you ‘Have a cup of tea…ah you will, you will, you will. Ah, go on, go on, go on’ is all too familiar.
And the ritual was always the same. The host would ask if you wanted some tea and you would tell them ‘no’ that you didn’t want to put them to any bother. They would insist that it was no bother and to be polite you would still decline and say you were fine. At which point – very much like the kinds of haggling that has been happening in markets and bazaars the world over – the host would continue to insist until after a suitable time you would concede and say ‘ah, go on then just a little drop ‘or if you were being truly Irish you would call it a ‘little droppeen’.
I guess I thought that was always how it went. So, I remember getting the shock of my life when I went to a new friend from schools house for the first time. This was London and her family were English. Her mother asked me if I wanted a cup of tea and I said no waiting for the obligatory haggling. And it never came. She made tea for everyone else and I was left gagging, thirsty and totally confused as to what had just happened. I soon learnt that in other people’s houses I just needed to say yes right away.
My tea drinking habit – which is much healthier now – no milk and definitely no sugar - seemed fine for the longest time…and I have no idea quite when it happened…but I seem to have developed a slight phobia with regard to tea – well not tea itself but the cups in which it is served.
I have always been someone who believes that if you are going to do something you should do it properly. And tea is the same.
And for some reason – which is lost on me – the coffee shops of today have failed to acknowledge the very big difference between the consumption of coffee and tea. They are serving teas in the wrong cups and it makes it – in my world at least – totally undrinkable. Tea served in big or small coffee cups is just wrong. Especially the large thick cups that are almost more like goldfish bowls than anything else. The small ones just simply do not give you enough to drink. I leave feeling deprived and thirsty. Drinking out of the big ones creates a feeling of claustrophobia for me. Your entire face gets lost as the cup is raised to get the drink of choice from it and due to the huge circumference at the top of the cup the drink contained within it goes cold way too quickly. As far as I am concerned cold tea is just wrong and totally unacceptable.
And so, as a result of some very bad experiences with tea in the wrong cups it has now become an issue for me. I end up driving myself and my drinking companions crazy in the pursuit of just the right type – choosing glasses or take-away cups when there isn’t a mug or a suitably sized and shaped cup. Often generating raised eyebrows and the odd eye-roll from the purveyors of hot beverages or my friends who think I am making a fuss over nothing.
But I think I may just have had one of the quirkiest and strangely satisfying encounters with tea so far. I was sat in Heathrow Terminal 3. In the bar – which served food – and I ordered a fish pie and a cup of weak, black Earl Grey. My usual tea of choice. Completely forgetting about my ‘cup’ thing. And when the tea arrived it came in a big, thick, bowl shaped cup and I flinched. Apologising for being difficult I asked if they had any mugs – to which the answer was no. then I asked if they had take-away cups – again no. I then asked if they had any tall glasses – to which the answer was yes.
My waiter disappeared and came back a few minutes later with a big smile on his face and an even bigger pint glass full to the brim of boiling water. This wasn’t any ordinary pint mug glass though - it was a beer mug. With a tea bag on the side. It was so wrong and so right all at the same time. I giggled – added the tea bag – and no one was more delighted than I in that moment. But the surprise just got better as I discovered that beer mugs keep tea very, very hot for a very long time.
I am not sure if this is something that I will make into a regular habit when out in public but I am now seriously considering the purchase of a beer mug for my tea consumption at home. And I fully intend to do more research into the best cups to drink tea from.
I look forward to sharing the results with you. Who knows what I will discover. I am not sure whether my ancestors will be happy with the outcomes or turning in their graves…but am pretty certain that – if there is a heaven – there must be tea and it will always be served in the most perfect of cups.