“Who is wetting the tea?” – an Irish saying, meaning “Who is making the tea?”
Camelia Sinensis. Cha. Tea. Tae. It has a centuries old story in Europe, first through the Portuguese in the 16th century, then more widely traded by the Dutch, followed by the British Empire (que the rise of the East India Company). At one point, Ireland had the highest per capita consumption of tea in the world. Tea, hot, became a defining national characteristic of England and Ireland, but in the USA, that honor goes to coffee, with the exception of iced tea. Only slightly lesser well known in the popular imagination is that Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall also have a tea culture.
In these tea drinking, Celtic language regions, it was traditionally loose-leaf tea, steeped in a pot, from which everyone was served communally. The round “cannonball” shape, sometimes dubbed a “Brown Betty” in England, is the most iconic. Before tea made its way into these areas, ale was the common daily beverage for meals. Because who wants to drink water when you can quaff a frothy brew? But, once tea was introduced, the rest is steeped in history.
“Tea seldom spoils if water boils.” – Scottish proverb
Everyone loves a good story, and so tea among Celtic speaking peoples took on its own folklore. If the lid is accidentally left off the teapot, this foretold the coming of a stranger or possibly ill-luck. Stirring the tea leaves in the pot was deemed unlucky as it could stir-up quarrels. The patterns of tea leaves left in the cup, which earlier was a shallow bowl or saucer, would reveal one’s fortunes through the art of tasseomancy.
Tea culture in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man typically share three characteristics – they all feature strong black tea, historically from China, India, or Sri Lanka, it is accompanied with baked goods, fruit jams, and butter or clotted cream, and it is a communal affair. It was considered bad manners indeed to pour oneself a cup of tea without first offering tea to whomever else was present, whether family or friends.
Irish Breakfast Tea: Assam is the defining varietal of classic “Irish Breakfast” teas. Assam is a region in central India known for its rich, malty black teas, which give a robust body and deep flavor in the cup. They are bolder and less brisk than an English breakfast style tea. My Ma, of O’Hagan ancestry, always serves her Irish tea with milk and sugar. Or rather tae, pronounced “tay” in Irish.
Scottish Tea: My father is a proud descendant of Scottish immigrants of Clan Lamont from the Cowal Peninsula. As a child, he took me to the yearly rounds of Scottish games in Virginia so that I would know and cherish our cultural heritage. Every afternoon together, we would have “Scottish teatime” at 4pm. This consisted of black tea, accompanied by shortbread and oatcakes with Dundee Orange Marmalade. Lately, ye olde Dundee has been replaced by the Highland Bard Tea Jellies as I make my way through the delectable flavors.
Tea in Wales: Bara Brith and “Welsh Cakes” are two common accompaniments for tea in Wales. They are in the ilk of classic preserved fruits-and-colonial spice mix cakes and breads. Welsh tea was traditionally of China and India varietals, steeped strong, and offered with milk and sugar. Tea in Wales is often associated with the stereotypical image of Welsh ladies in Welsh “national dress”: black stovepipe hat, red woolen cloak, and kerchief.
Tea in Cornwall: Cream Tea was born in the West Country, where there is a longstanding rivalry between Cornwall and neighboring Devon as to the proper way to prepare the accompanying scones (rhymes with Johns, not bones). In Cornwall, the method is to slather jam (traditionally strawberry) on first, then top with clotted cream. But according to the Devonshire method, tis clotted cream first, then jam. Either way it’s delicious, but personally, I have to roll with Cornwall. They have their own Celtic language after all. And that’s where Poldark is set.
Tea is one of the few areas of my life where I am a traditionalist. I am brand loyal, preferring strong black teas such as Barry’s Gold Blend. I usually take mine with a dash of cream and a teaspoon of raw sugar. Sometimes I sip it black, if it is a single estate varietal like a fine Darjeeling. As I have become more acquainted with the Celtic-themed teas blended by The Highland Bard, these fit nicely into my daily tea ritual.
The first Highland Bard tea I tried was “White Wolf Blend”. At first, I was skeptical that I would like it, as I usually don’t go for scented or flavored teas. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the gentle flavor of the holy basil in this; it is deftly added so as to not overpower the delicate white tea or rose petals, acting more like a condiment in the blend.
The next blend I tried was “Spirits of Skye: Scotch Whisky Blend”. I was intrigued by the blend of Assam (a favorite Indian tea varietal), with smoky Lapsang Souchong and nettle leaf (great for immune system and allergy support). This is delicious and interesting, with a nostalgic smokiness and rich body that reminds me of sitting by a glowing peat fire in a cozy cottage (archaeology field school days). This is my personal fave from The Highland Bard.
Onwards I sipped to the “Highland Blend”. A lively blend of Assam, pu-erh, and holy basil. Earthy pu-erh (the only truly fermented tea), plays the bass here, holding up the bottom end while assam does its malty dance in the middle, and holy basil sings the top melody.
I encourage you to explore the fascinating history and customs associated with tea, especially in the cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Wales and Cornwall. Before I leave off for another cuppa, I would like to mention a quick note about some terms and utensils. Tea here means a brew made from camelia sinensis. An herbal “tea”, or rather, infusion, is more properly called a “tisane”. Just as coffee is not “java tea”, it is called coffee, only tea itself is tea.
Regarding utensils. Of course, prepare and serve tea in whatever strikes your fancy. However, the materials and forms of tea ware were created to compliment the unique characteristics of different styles of tea. Teas in the Celtic regions are traditionally black, which requires water brought just up to a full rolling boil. If you pour that into delicate porcelain, it is liable to crack from the heat. Heavier glazed pottery is better suited to black tea preparation, because it has better insulating properties – it can withstand hotter water temperatures and retain heat longer.
When someone once asked what my home decorating style was, I replied “Lord of the Rings meets the Highlands”. As such, I have a penchant for rustic, earthy stoneware and salt-glaze pottery. I like to search for vintage pieces from Ireland and Scotland, as I have deep affection for the romanticism and history they invoke. Spend some time giving thought to your tea ware collection, and what types of teas you will serve in each piece. That warmth will be felt by those you serve.
Everywhere, tea has a way of bringing people together. Even if it is just you, taking the time to prepare and savor your tea gathers your senses together into the present moment, inviting you to be still and reflect. Consider bringing a touch of Celtic historicity into your tea ritual; will ye tak a cuppa kindness?
What’s in your pot?