I have been explaining for decades to mild amusement while abroad how Ireland may not grow any tea leaves but the country firmly believes it produces the best tea in the world anyway. In a long and winding way its the story of late 19th century tea merchants here importing the leaves from the colonies and producing the crucial blend to satisfy the native palate. The irony is never lost however.
Our Irish tea story has two rival companies claiming to be the ultimate Irish tea. Whether you drink the Dublin based Lyons or Cork’s Barry’s tea is akin to the allegiance split in political parties, religion or sports teams and taken as seriously. So straight up I will admit I drink both, a cup of Lyons during the day and a Barry’s last thing at night. I never ask which brand it is when offered a cuppa, as I am not fussed as they are both excellent. There is such devotion to the two teas here that expats still bring a box back home with them or have them sent over. It’s like there is no other tea like it in the world when there are probably many if you were to seek them out.
Then there is the making of said Irish tea, either with loose leaves in the hot water whetted tea pot with the all important drawing time to infuse them fully before drinking. Then there is the insulating tea cosy and even the leaf reading tradition if you have not strained it. You can just ditch all that romance with the no nonsense convenient tea bag.
After that however you have the weak, strong or black as tar preferences for drinking it and the milk and sugar additions. The milk poured first or last is also a heated debate never mind the various dunking techniques for the biscuits.
I have my own favourite way to take it but I am also able to go with or without milk and sugar and any degree of strength except the extreme tarry type. You also never refuse another cup of tea as there is a Mrs. Doyle in every house. If you think Irish tea drinking is convoluted then check out the Japanese and you will be amazed how important tea is as a ceremonial social status event.
The Irish tea is actually classified as black tea with the leaves fermented naturally by leaving to wilt in the air and then further dried. The other two classifications of tea are the unfermented green tea and semi fermented varieties. Geography is the major factor in all things tea though with the mixing and matching as complicated as the world of wine, coffee and chocolate.
Tea is important in cooking too both savoury like in sauces and for sweet products in baking and ice cream for example and of course it has no calories but excellent other health benefits with powerful antioxidants and of course the all important caffeine hit. Then there are all the flavoured teas, my favourite would be Earl Grey with its citrus notes. Latest research shows a couple of cups a day increase lifespan by ten per cent. The Chinese, Indians, Sri Lanka and Japanese would be the big Asian players and of course Kenya in Africa where most of the Irish tea comes from. The Chinese claim they were the first to drink it when an ancient emperor had some leaves blow down into his boiling cup of water, he liked what happened to the flavour and the rest is history.
There was always breakfast, afternoon and high tea thanks to the English but the last few years have seen tea being elevated to equal the prestige of the finer coffees at the snazzy end of the after dinner fine dining market. The first crops from the more renowned plantations like Darjeeling in India and several in China are now sold at extraordinary prices sometimes a million dollars per kilo. Now you would not be throwing them down the sink after the first cup. I will stick to Lyons and Barry’s.