Sunday, February 12, 2006

Ah! The cup of tay! and other breakfast musings

First published on The Dublin South-West Forum, July 30th 2005

My father recently forwarded a supply of teabags to us which, somewhat strangely, made putrid tea. It was bitter stuff, and the strangeness of it was that it was from a reputable tea blender. I can only guess that he came by an old supply at cheap rates someplace.

This morning I had the pleasure of *two* mugs of Barry's tea. Barry's is owned by the family of Peter Barry (born August 10, 1928) a retired Irish Fine Gael politician and businessman.

My mother and father went through the war years (known in Ireland as "The Emergency", but to everyone else as World War II), when tea was rationed to half an ounce per person per week. Considering that "loose tea" (as distinct from the modern bagged stuff, which although I drink it for convenience sake is still to my mind inferior) was generally sold by the quarter pound, this was a poor amount indeed to have to try to survive upon. Tea being so scarce, my father has tales of his Aunt Maggie serving tea all week from the same batch of leaves, which doesn't bear thinking about too closely.

We got our tea-drinking habits from copying the English who started drinking it in the 1650s. It was so expensive that early tea caddies came with locks and keys which only the mistress of the house carried. Antique teapots and teacups are therefore tiny, like dolls-house teasets. Great profits were eventually made from tea imports, but as time wore on it stopped being such an unreachable luxury and spread out from the upper crust in England through their houses in Ireland to become a staple of the Irish diet as it remains today.

In our house, the tea caddy was almost never empty and held mostly Lyons Green Label or Mauve Label tea leaves. We also drank PG Tips. A souvenir tea scoop, with the Isle of Mann coat of arms on its handle, was what was used to measure. One scoop per person, and one for the pot was the law. Of course, the pot must first be warmed with scalding water. The tea would not brew properly if dumped unceremoniously into a cold pot! And the length of time the brew was allowed to do its work was also important, as was a proper knitted cosy to cover the pot.

At work, we have a well-appointed canteen, which, until recently, suffered from bad tea. It had those large tea boiling urns that, no matter what end of the day one visited, consistently brewed "mouse trotting" tea. (Tea so strong that you could trot a mouse across its surface.) They lately changed tack and supplied us with miniature teapots, each accompanied by a single teabag. Now, if the strength of the tea is not to one's taste, the blame can't be placed on the canteen staff. It's still a teabag though. Not "real tea" as my mother would have liked it.

An American visitor in the 1990s complained that he couldn't get a decent cup of coffee in Dublin. Back then we invariably used the condensed granular stuff (We've since heard of coffee beans, btw). As I pointed out, you could always get a decent cup of tea. My American friend was not impressed.

"Tay" by the way, is the original pronunciation of the brew. It's survival in Hiberno English proves our long history of tea-drinking. In fact, the use of "Tay" instead of "Tea" was at one time a social stigma, at a time when all things English were considered superior, and anything of Irish origin considered inferior.

I read some place that Jonathan Swift, on visiting a Dublin high society soiree in the 1700s at which the ladies were doing everything possible to avoid the "Tay"-like accent and sound more "dignified", encountered someone who asked him if he had enjoyed his visit to the "Bee of Neeples."

She should have stuck to the cup of tay.

Of course the cup of tay is fine on its own, but it's at its best as a follow up to "The Full Irish", which is to say a proper fried breakfast.

Opinions differ as to what the full Irish actually is these days. With influences from foreign travel and the influx of visitors from near and far oddments have been added and subtracted. If you go into a cafe in the city, the full Irish is likely to consist of friend pork sausages, fried or scrambled egg, and maybe some black and white pudding. Extras include buttered toast or fried bread. Baked beans may also feature.

I don't think of beans as a breakfast food and I think they've crept onto the menu from truck stops in the U.K., where long-distance lorry drivers combined breakfast, lunch, and tea in one meal. Beans are more an evening meal for me and I can't do them justice in the morning.

Pork sausages come in so many guises these days as well, that it's difficult to buy the "perfect" breakfast. Hafners are my sausage of choice in the breakfast department, but they're not stocked by the local supermarkets any more. (They used to be available back in the days of H. Williams supermarket, long since departed from Tallaght Village). I'm sure a butcher or two must still sell them.

These days the shop-bought sausages of "Everyday" brand, fill the gap in the frying pan. I'm not so fond of the "Denny" varieties, unless very well cooked they tend to have a softer filling.

Puddings are again a matter of individual taste. The black rings of puddings made by Walshes and filled with white veins of suet are the favourite in my book. You can keep yer aul dry Clonakiltys as far as I'm concerned. Likewise the white puds, which should be browned and accompanied by the shrivelled skins they came in.

Last but not least is the fried egg, which has so many ways to go wrong it's amazing that it stays on the menu at all these days. To give evolution its due, I've stopped frying my foods in the traditional lards (or cooking fats, if they're of slightly different origin). I now use vegetable oils. The egg tends to fry reasonably well in these, and I'm a soft yoke man myself. Not that I send back an egg that has a slightly hardened yoke. Burst the yoke, though, and half the breakfast ritual of dipping toast, fried bread, or bread and butter in it is sadly lost.

I hope your croissants tasted nice this morning. I'm off for a real breakfast.

2 comments:

Angh said...

You don't KNOW how good it is to see your creativity again.

So pleased it tickles!

Willie_W said...

As my mother used to say, "Hard work's not easy." Let's hope I can keep up the momentum. Anyhow Angh, I'm pleased you're pleased! ;-)