How I do love my morning cuppa. It’s become a time-honoured, cherished ritual. What am I saying – become? It’s been one for years. Back in the Canberra days I had a blue enamel mug and earlier, I think, the beige stoneware one with the floral decal. That’s when I developed a serious intolerance to caffeine. I was writing my first book, West Block, and was draining down mugfuls of tea throughout the day to keep me at it. To stoke me, you might say. Now I have to be extremely disciplined. It’s Madura at home - Madura claims to be only 3% caffeine and it’s Australian, so I can feel good about drinking it on these counts alone. I alternate: tea bags one morning, teapot the next, though I’m not exactly sure why. I buy the premium blend, preferring that to their English breakfast, but will accept any brand of that when I go out.
I became a dedicated tea jenny through the influence of my first mother-in-law, and it was her son, my first husband, who was the first person I’d ever seen put milk in his teacup. The sight of it was shocking, so much so I nearly gagged. Now, some 55 years later, it’s much my favoured way.
In the US I grew up in we only drank tea if we were ill. It was and remains the best cure I know for nausea. Very, very weak and black, and cloudy with sugar. Mountains of it. On less extreme occasions tea was drunk socially, but only black and then with a genteel slice of lemon. And then there was iced tea. Only Americans, and possibly only ones of my vintage, know how to make it properly. Lots of ice, with the freshly brewed tea poured over it, sometimes with lemon, though I would judge that unnecessary, and never with sugar. The bottled variety we get with the Lipton label is nothing like what it should be; I say it’s an abomination.
The Australia I came to all those years ago was an unreconstructed tea country. We hadn’t yet shaken off the concept of empire and the signature goods that went with it: marmalade, HP sauce, treacle (Golden Syrup), tripe and black pudding. Most of all tea. Hot water was sold at beach kiosks: the belief was that drinking tea hot cooled you down. (I found that difficult to fathom, and still do, though I’m more amenable to it now.) The coffee we drank came out of a tube or a bottle and we embraced the instant granules as soon as they came on the market. Not soon after my arrival, though, espresso bars began to make their appearance. It took some thirty years, however, before Australians became the discerning coffee drinkers that we are, and the country began to rightly boast of serving some of the best coffee in the world. Due to our migrants, of course. I was the exception, it seems, and it was Australia that made a tea drinker out of me, instead of the other way around. A certain wistfulness comes over me, though, whenever I walk past a cafe late in the day, or see a woman striding the footpath with the ubiquitous paper mug with its safety lid clutched in her happy hand. (There are few aromas as lovely, I confess, as that of coffee, even a whiff of the grinds. ) That’s when I think I might like taking it up again, but it’s a passing whim. Even a cup of tea drunk at that hour of day would keep me awake for a week.You may have noticed that for this blog at least I’ve refrained as well from speaking of serious things. I admit it’s because I find them generally depressing. We’re told again and again that the economy has never been better, that we’ve never had it so good, at the same time that jobs are being shed in what’s left of our manufacturing industry, TAFEs are closed, public servants sacked, houses are unaffordable, universities strained, the climate is rapidly changing etc etc. The two questions to ask are how is this vaunted good life of ours is being measured, and just who is it ‘better than ever’ for. For some bizarre reason I’m reminded here of the story about Thomas Jefferson who centuries before ordered that, in an move towards household economy, tea be drunk at Monticello instead of the more expensive coffee. Well and good, but tea drinker that I am, and with the whole of Australia hooked on espressos now, I think we’ll have to work out more sophisticated ways of managing our national estate than that.