When I was growing up in rural Ireland in the 60s and 70s (yep…. I’ve totally give the game away now!), we only ever drank tea in our home… which was the case in most, if not all, the homes around us. We had an orange tea-leaf dispenser on the wall and with a push of a button the leaves went into the pre-heated tea-pot and was brought back to the boil and then put on a place mat in the middle of the kitchen table under a tea-cosy to keep it nice and hot. And so began the endless cups of tea and the constant ‘hot drops’ that seemed to make a seamless connection between dinner and tea time. We drank it out of mugs (except my Mum who said that tea always tasted better out of a china cup) according to our taste – my Mum liked to give it to us children, fresh from the pot while it was still a little ‘weak’ and then when it had become a lot stronger she served my Dad. So much of my childhood memories are caught up in those never-ending tea drinking sessions, including all the times my Mum and her two sisters would sit after dinner, when all the family had been fed and left the table, drinking tea and putting all the world to rights. I can still remember that wonderful thrill of anticipation when, in my bedroom upstairs, studying, I would hear my Mum plug in the kettle downstairs and I would know that tea was on its way!
When we had special guests or special occasions like Christmas and Easter, my Mum would bring out the best china that was kept in the sideboard in the dining room. She had 4 sets, 3 of which were wedding presents, and she would pull out the extensions in the dining room table, lay the tablecloth with matching cups, saucers, silver cutlery, along with side plates, a cake plate and milk jug and sugar bowl. And then she would bring in the home-made scones and buns, biscuits and maybe some left over Christmas cake (which lasted for months). I love my mugs but I still remember watching and listening to the sound of hot freshly brewed tea being poured into a china cup and can honestly say there is nothing like it in all the world.
It was my sister who first brought coffee into our house and I can remember hating the smell of it. As time went on, my parents would sometimes have a milky coffee to keep them going if dinner was going to be a bit on the late side, and gradually I noticed that guests were as much offered coffee as tea. I can’t remember when, in my child-rearing years I started to drink coffee in preference to tea, but a lot of my memories, and that of my children, are connected to coffee. The times I sat on the kitchen floor on the other side of the counter in the hope of some privacy, while one of the children tip-toed up to me and asked tentatively ‘have you had your coffee now Mum?’, in the hopes that I had materialized into a semi-human being. I drank endless mugs, often lukewarm or cold, until the wonderful purchase of a microwave. Then I would look fruitlessly for my half-drunk mug of coffee, give up, make another mug, drink a little, get distracted, find it cold and put it in the microwave to heat it up… only to find the missing mug of coffee. My eldest daughter still remembers the day I ran out of coffee, with me frantically searching the cupboards for the coffee I was so sure was there… but wasn’t. It may sound like an addiction, but strangely enough I am not addicted to coffee as I don’t suffer the effects of withdrawal when I don’t have it. When I fast the whole month of Ramadan, I may drink a handful of mugs of coffee throughout the whole month, if that, and not suffer from headaches or any other physical symptoms of withdrawal. But I miss the company of coffee – to me it’s like a little treat to myself throughout the day, and I love sharing a mug with friends (such an odd saying that – ‘sharing a mug with friends’ because there’s nobody I love enough to actually share one single mug of coffee with….well ok, maybe my husband if he actually drank coffee and my Mum or Dad if they were still around, and, at a pinch, my children.). There have been times when my husband has offered me a cup of tea or coffee, gone off and made it, brought it back to me and then sat down…..without one for himself. And I have tried to explain that it’s nice to SHARE one with someone… meaning that they have one too. But he just can’t understand why I can’t enjoy my cup on my own, when he doesn’t particularly want one himself. When he then said that he would compromise and bring in a cup of….. water and drink it with me, I knew that this was one of those cultural battles that should never be waged as there just was no winning side.
For me afternoon coffee in Algeria brought back memories of my childhood and…. the Japanese tea ceremony…. only with coffee instead of tea! The Algerians don’t have ‘elevenses’ or ‘pick-me-ups’, or in fact any kind of snacks in between meals, which is probably much healthier, I suppose. If I don’t sound convinced it’s because I love the whole idea of stopping work, whatever the pastime, and having a mini-break with a cuppa regardless of the beverage of choice. They drink coffee in the morning and again in the afternoon and that’s it. If there aren’t any guests then it’s a less formal affair, but if there are guests then it’s more like ‘high tea’. For me to serve coffee or tea to ex-pat guests means asking what way they like it, making it in the kitchen and then plonking the mug in front of them. But in Algeria you have to have: a large tray preferably ornamental, on which you put a set of matching coffee cups and saucers which are usually slightly smaller than the English/Irish tea cups, these are for milky coffee, and then another set of even smaller ones (to my mind not much bigger than a thimble) for black coffee. With that you also have a matching sugar bowl and another bowl for the teaspoons, some people put water in this and others don’t, along with a serviette holder. In addition, of course, you need two flasks, again as ornamental as you can find, a large one for the hot milk and a small one for the coffee. Then of course there’s the plates of cakes (usually around 3 different varieties is sufficient) and the individual plates for each person. And… you need all this in duplicate because most of the time you serve the men separately from the women.
I had a lot of help with my first time hosting a coffee afternoon as my long suffering sister-in-law gave me all the accoutrements for the occasion and I roped in her daughter to be ‘Mum’ and serve the guests. The second time, I again borrowed all the accessories, but this time I had to do all the serving myself and found myself getting very nervous when the room went quiet and all eyes were on me. When you’ve sussed out what each person likes, usually ‘nus-nus’, half milk, half coffee, and the right amount of sugar, again, usually 2 teaspoons (I thought at one time that this was almost compulsory in Algeria as I never saw anyone having any less or more than this amount), you then put the teaspoon in the cup and give it to the guest. On this particular day, however, I took the teaspoon out of the cup and handed it to the guest and was told that I should serve it IN the cup, which goes totally against my sense of propriety as I think it looks a lot better placed on the saucer and then given to the guest. I then had to admit that I didn’t have enough teaspoons to go round. The next week my husband’s sister-in-law turned up with… two packs of teaspoons, one from her and one from my husband’s other sister-in-law, and she admitted that she didn’t want to give me the other set as she wanted me to think it was only her that was being thoughtful! When I thanked her for them, I told her that if I had known that was the effect my not having teaspoons had on them I wished I had mentioned that I didn’t have enough jewelry either!
I have been here long enough now for my husband’s family to all be ‘trained’ to ask me if I want a coffee at odd times of the day, and, if we’re out visiting together they will often ask for a ‘boule’ for me, conjuring up images in my head of a massive bowl, but instead, I am given a mug, usually retrieved from the display cabinet and dusted off and washed first.