Melbourne might be the self-proclaimed coffee capital of the known universe, but what floats this Melbournian’s boat is the humble, daggy cup of tea.
I can go for days without coffee, and have even (oh the shame!) been known to sneak a cup of instant. Tea, however (made in a pot, with leaves) is a matter of survival. I can well understand why Jeanie Gunn, in the Australian classic, We of the Never Never, written in the early years of the 20th century, describes how vital tea was to the functioning of her remote Northern Territory cattle station. Everything would grind to a halt if the tea ran out; people would risk life and limb to ensure that supplies arrived.
I grew up in the middle of tea plantations in the Subcontinent, where tea is the beverage that keeps the nation on its feet. Any Indian will tell you, it is never too hot for a cup of tea, and there is always, always time for one.
Every time we moved house in India, we packed our crockery in old tea chests. To this day I can picture them: big boxes made of ply, covered in stencils of exotic place names, lined with tin, with traces of the leaves still in the corners and the faintest aroma of tea.
I am a complete tea snob: a drink made from a tea bag will never pass my lips. It’s partly about the flavour. I’m convinced that no matter how fancy the teabags are, they can’t compete with the real thing – a bit like comparing fresh ginger with the powdered variety. But it’s also about the mindful calmingness of the whole ceremony with which tea is made – warming the pot, spooning in the leaves, popping on the cosy, letting it steep, stirring a couple of times, pouring it into pre-warmed mugs. It’s impossible to do without thought and care, without love. The warmth starts as your hands wrap around the mug, and steals gently into your soul.
Through almost four decades together, my significant other and I have taken it in turns, every morning, to make the tea. We can barely function till we have downed that first cup; the sign of weekends or holidays is having a second cuppa in bed over a more leisurely read of the paper than is possible on a working day. Tea bookends our days, it is the glue that keeps our marriage together. Somehow, even the fanciest coffee machine can’t compete with that.
Published in The Age 23 February 2017