A cup of tea? Ah, go on, go on, go on
Used tea bags account for 950 tonnes of waste every year. Una Brankin explores why we so love a cuppa
William Gladstone had great faith in a cup of tea. "If you are cold, tea will warm you; if you are too heated it will cool you," he declared. "If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited it, will calm you."
Maybe William put a little something extra in his, but he does have a point.
The taking of tea is deeply ingrained in Ulster family life. A reliable stalwart, it's always there, and takes pride of place in times of crisis.
It's the unpretentious granddaddy of beverages, a port in a storm, a comforting friend in your hour of need. Not as trendy as coffee in all its modern frothy overpriced variations, but somehow possessing of a much stronger backbone.
It goes far better with an Ulster fry – far better than any of these new pretenders and doesn't leave that sort of sour brownish aftertaste that gives its enthusiasts nasty coffee-breaths.
Though coffee has more caffeine, tea is arguably more refreshing, and cleaner on the tongue.
Unless, like my Auntie Lily, you let it stew for 20 minutes until it tastes like a cross between Bovril and tar. That's the other thing about making a cup of tea. It's a more complex operation than preparing a cup of your average instant coffee. You have to heat the pot for a start and let it brew for at least three minutes on a warm – but not too hot – surface, ideally a nice cosy range.
You must check exactly how much milk is required, as too much is anathema to the likes of myself, who likes only a splash – and, by the way, prefers the milk in before the tea, like the Royals. (In their case, this is so the hot tea isn't poured directly on to their extremely fine, easily cracked china.)
For the connoisseur, there's nothing worse than a bad cup of tea.
My brother-in-law Paul makes a famously dreadful cup: pathetically weak, far too milky and half cold. Before he was married he shared a house with his two brothers and a friend, all avowed tea drinkers who would sink several cups a day – but who, to a man, would turn down Paul's offer of a cup every time.
With just the right amount of milk, tea is a good thirst quencher, but it doesn't seem right not to have something nice to go with it. Whereas it's acceptable to hand a guest a cup of coffee on its own, it seems rude to serve tea solo. As the clever Rich Tea biscuit jingle went, a cup's too wet without one.
Growing up, bread and jam was always the companion to tea, and it never tasted better than when served in the middle of a field of beans or peas or scallions in the summer harvest.
My very first cup of coffee on the other hand was in the old Skandia restaurant with my mother during one of her few shopping trips to the 'big smoke' in the '70s. It felt very grown-up and sophisticated to copy her and order a 'white coffee' – but I hated it and screwed up my face at the strange bitter tang.
I couldn't understand how Mum could take hers when she only drank tea at home. "I suppose it must be an acquired taste," she said. "Put a drop more sugar in it." (This was often the solution before sugar was demonised by modern nutritionists; my father even got us to eat tomatoes, after we'd refused point-blank, by sprinkling sugar on them).
So I persevered throughout my teens, thinking tea was a sort of culchie drink. All the pretty popular girls at school would have coffee in their flasks at lunchtime, and if you were meeting someone in town on a Saturday, it was away "for a coffee", never dull old-fashioned and unsophisticated tea.
The turning point for me and a lot like me was the arrival of the Cappuccino. All that froth and powdery chocolate disguised the bitterness underneath quite nicely. Even the exotic name helped. And it tasted better after wine at the end of a meal than tea. A strong brew after a robust red and you're facing tannin overload.
Suddenly coffee was everywhere, being sold for daft prices in daftly named cafes.
(A taxi driver told me of some tourists who were so confused by all the Italian and French named cafes around town that they hailed him down and asked him to drive them to the nearest Irish restaurant, somewhere that they could get a nice up of tea with their meal. He brought them to McDonalds.)
The humble tea became an afterthought on coffee menus packed with every conceivable version, from Decaff Mocha Latte to Double Trouble Espresso.
Teenage girls grew fat – and are still growing fatter – on giant beakers of the stuff, with caramel and cream and chocolate flakes thrown in. Cafe owners grew richer, fancy coffee became the drink du jour of the boom, and dull old downtrodden tea became deeply unfashionable.
Then, slowly, it started to make a comeback. Despite the continued popularity of its rival in all its continental guises, it has never really gone away in homes everywhere, and there are more varieties than ever now on the shelves.
There's even a Tea House cafe now in Dublin, serving every variety under the sun.
But you can keep your perfumey Earl Grey and lemon-infused Chamomiles; I prefer a good hearty cup of plain old Namosa (preferably with a slice of white loaf with Hartley's Raspberry jam).
As an oriental gentleman called T'ien Yiheng once said, 'Tea is drunk to take the din out of life.' Exactly.
complex than preparing a cup of your average instant coffee'