Road Trip

The Other South

By Heidi Rupke | August 04, 2017
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Research brought my family to Canberra, the capital of Australia, for a few months. If my husband is here for the astronomy, I’m here for the deliciousness. One delectable custom that we have embraced is tea time.

Tea is enjoyed mid-morning and mid-afternoon, or after a concert or event. It can even be an evening meal. The essential elements are tea, something to nibble, and an unhurried atmosphere.

Australians have drunk tea since the First Fleet arrived here in 1788. This was just a few years after American colonists dumped chests of tea into Boston Harbor. Britain exported its tea habits to its colonies, though these customs were derived from the Chinese, who had long been infusing water with the leaves of the Camellia sinensis. Aboriginal people of Australia also consumed a beverage of water steeped with leaves — in this instance, from the ‘ti tree’ — when pale Europeans arrived.

Australia produces some of its own tea, mostly on the north and east coasts, where climates and rainfall are similar to other major tea growing regions of the world. However, these are mostly specialty items. Like Europe and North America, Australia imports most of its tea from Asia.

Popular culture has woven tea into its stories and songs. The well-known ballad “Waltzing Matilda” describes a jolly swagman (itinerant worker) sitting beside a billabong (well), waiting for his billy (tea made with eucalyptus leaves) to boil. He later snags a passing sheep and then jumps into the well when confronted by the land owner and police. In Australia, tea is the beverage of the common person; no elevated pinkies or delicate sipping is expected.

My most consistent tea experiences are after church on Sundays. Coffee and black tea are served by two congregants behind a kitchen counter. The aluminum tea kettles are large enough to fill a birdbath, and emit fragrant, steamy brown liquid into solid white mugs. Pourers ask recipients if they would like room for milk in their cup. In my opinion, the correct answer is “yes.” Milk is then poured from a pitcher into the dark brown tea. Sugar may be added to the drinker’s taste. A scant half-teaspoon is lovely.

Australian teaspoons, as in the utensils for stirring tea, are smaller than American spoons by the same name. About five inches long and capable of doll-sized scoops, the spoon is just an inch or so taller than the cup. With a stir of this charming implement, white milk swirls upward, blending the beverage into a tan mug full of friendship and goodwill. With each stir, aromatic steam wafts tantalizingly upward.

Small portions of fruit such as grapes or apple slices may accompany tea, as can finger sandwiches, cookies, and cakes. Cucumber with butter or salmon and dill are popular sandwich options, most often about an inch wide and three inches long, perfect for nibbling. Crackers with a vegetable dip — beet or avocado do nicely — offer a savory alternative to sweets. Cookies are dubbed “biscuits” in Australia, and range from ho-hum to sublime.

Tim Tams top the “sublime” category for biscuits. They are about the size and shape of a Jenga block. Ensconced in milk chocolate coating are two chocolate wafers, which crunch appealingly when bitten. Nestled between waters is a thin layer of chocolate filling. The whole effect is of smooth sweetness. The original version (all chocolate) is outstanding, though Mint Tim Tams are a close second. For the more adventurous, mango, coconut, and caramel fillings await sampling. Count me in for any teatime with Tim Tams.

While tea time is rooted in several continents, contemporary Australians have made this custom their own. It’s decidedly not fancy, but still warm and inviting. Drinking tea with someone means spending time with them, relaxing with fingers curled around a warm mug and perhaps some scones. It’s an antidote to a stressful, hurried lifestyle.

We in the American South have our own sipping rituals, many of them with iced beverages to combat a long, fierce summer. We’re also good at slowing down and spending time, which only makes sense in the molasses heat of late August. Goodness knows we can bake some enticing goodies to accompany tea. And like Australian tea time, our cultural rituals, while connected to a specific history and region, continually make space for new faces and fresh flavors.

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