I have failed the online Irish test set by Buzzfeed. I can’t sing the anthem, I don’t speak Gaelic and, perhaps most damning of all, I don’t drink tea. It is the milk that puts me off.
I find milk repulsive. In Ireland it is rare to be offered tea without it. My dislike of dairy product prompted me to give up tea-drinking at around age 16, about the same time I stopped going to church. In Belfast, the two decisions were seen as equally shocking. Nearly forty years on, my sister still offers me a cup of tea every time she sees me and when I decline it wounds her. She keens by the kettle like Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle “Ah go on, y’will, y’will, y’will. ” I won’t.
If there is one thing I like less than cold milk, it is hot milk:the smell of it when it scalds the pan. The yellow skin slime. The sickly cinnamon scent redolent of a 1960s sanatorium, so much less appealing than the still-welcome whiff of Vick, a packet of Tunes, or a newly filled hot water bottle, the other smells of childhood convalescence.
Imagine my horror on a visit this week to the Indian Embassy in Washington DC, when I was urged several times to drink tea from an urn: tea already mixed with warmed milk. I could feel bile rising in my throat like boiling milk in a cheap aluminum pan. I poured a cupful. “Add sugar” my tormentors said. I had to spoon and stir.
To my astonishment, the drink was delicious. Assam tea, boiling water, the dreaded warmed full-fat and the addition of cardamom and a little sugar. If cardamom had been a condiment in Belfast during the Troubles I could have been a chai drinker since childhood. I am now making up for lost time, enabled by two large bags of black tea straight from the padi fields of North East India, a gift from one of my new acquaintances. I have raided the curry cupboard for the cardamom.
In the next few days, I will be toasting in Chai to celebrate my friend Juliet’s film. The Hundred Foot Journey is the story of an Indian chef and his French mentor. The fragrant Helen Mirren stars but early reviews suggest that the aroma of Indian spice steals many of the scenes. Good luck to producer Juliet Blake on the red carpet and at the box office. You can find me at the opening of the tea caddy.