The Land Down Under is famous for many things, including the Sydney Opera House, kangaroos, Crocodile Dundee, vegemite, and tea. Yes, tea! Their close association with Britain over the last few centuries makes this hardly surprising. Of course, the fact that tea is the second most popular beverage, after water, on the planet, makes the Aussie passion for tea seem downright normal. They’re in line with a big chunk of the world’s population.
As is true in many nations, Australians typically enjoy three meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Like many Europeans, they eat their evening meal late (around 6 pm or so), making that stretch between lunch around noon and that final repast of the day seem a bit overly long. Yes, tummies are usually grumbling pretty loudly when that call to dinner is sounded unless — yes, it’s tea time to the rescue!
While the habit of taking tea in mid-afternoon (actually, around 4 pm) started in Britain with one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, it was quick to spread beyond that “precious stone set in the silver sea” (as William Shakespeare called it in King Richard II, Act 2 scene 1) to other parts of the then-British Empire, including Australia. (Who says good news doesn’t travel fast?) These days, even school children participate in the taking of afternoon tea, having their “after-school tea time snack,” including such treats as chocolate crackles (a combination of crunchy rice cereal and a sweet chocolate coating).
The typical menu for an Aussie-style afternoon tea is pots full of tea and plenty of treats. Finger sandwiches, scones, cakes, and fresh “biscuits” (what we in the US call “cookies”) are most common. These foods satisfy, go well with the hearty black teas usually served, and carry those imbibing them through until dinner, usually the largest meal of the day (lunch is, like in many modern countries, becoming more of a fast-food style event).
A blending of Aboriginal and European customs exists in Australia, just as European customs and American Indian customs (among many others) have blended here in the US. One of the items resulting from this mix is called “Billy Tea.” Europeans brought tea to that island-continent, and the Aborigines took a very straightforward approach to steeping it.
Making Billy Tea:
Start with a billy pot (just a pot with a handle, often sold at camping stores). Get your campfire going (or you can use a camp stove, but it’s not as authentic). Fill the pot about three-fourths full with water and hang it over the open fire (or place on the camp stove burner). Heat the water to a boil, add about 2-3 tablespoons of loose tea leaves, and remove the pot from the fire (or stove). Use a clean stick (or, if you don’t want to be that authentic, a wooden spoon). Steep for a few minutes, letting the tea leaves settle to the pot’s bottom. (If you want true authenticity, you can take the pot by the handle and swing it over your head in a wide circle so that centrifugal force will settle the tea leaves. On second thought, if the leaves need a bit of help sinking, you’d be safer using the stick/wooden spoon to push them down.) Pour the tea carefully into your mug (or, if you’re in a real “roughing it” mood, just dip your mug into the pot). Sugar, honey, and milk are commonly-used enhancers there. Take your pick!
Whether roughing it with billy tea or swanking it up in a tearoom in Melbourne or Sydney, you’re sure to have a great tea time in that land down under. Don’t forget that, since they are in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are reversed from here in the US. Our summer is their winter and vice versa.
Don’t miss A.C.’s blog, Tea Time with A.C. Cargill!
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