Ifirst discovered France as a very young man – an innocent boy abroad still wet behind the ears, blundering into a culture that was totally new to me. I was working on a postgraduate research project, when one afternoon Julien, a section head in electrolysis, walked into my laboratory. “You’re English aren’t you?” he asked. I agreed that I was – even though I wasn’t, as experience had taught me that to reveal my Northern Irish roots would produce the riposte “But you are anglais, aren’t you?” To the French, I had learnt, we are all anglais. “So, you’re a tea drinker?” Julien went on. I hadn’t tasted tea in weeks. “Of course.” “My wife Mélanie loves tea. She drinks it all the time.” “Is that so?” I said, wondering where the conversation was going. “How would you like to come along for a bite to eat on Thursday? Afterwards we can all drink tea together.” Julien scribbled on a piece of paper. “Our address. I’ve drawn a little map on the back. It’s not far. Until Thursday, then!” Julien hadn’t mentioned a time – a curious habit of the French – so I guessed and turned up at eight o’clock. Mélanie was a chatterer who kept up an endless flow of questions. We ate dinner, then settled down for the main event of the evening. Mélanie’s probing questions suddenly switched to the subject of tea, and it came as a surprise to find that she considered me an expert (I suppose in her eyes all English would be tea experts, and all French, food experts). She asked me my opinion on Darjeeling and on Earl Grey, and on other names I have long forgotten. China or India? To warm the pot or not to warm? We talked about leaf size and water temperature and infusion time. We discussed adulteration. We briefly touched on the subject of tisanes (anathema to her). If I didn’t know the answer I would reply with a question, much like a tennis player making fast returns of service. In the end I got through the questioning, but only just, and Mélanie smiled at me as if I were a very clever dog who had performed a rather special trick. Then tea was served. I stared at it, my facial expression hiding the astonishment I felt. This black aromatic liquid, with a wedge of lemon floating, was certainly not the stuff I had been drinking all my life. Where was the sugar? Where was the milk? Where was the spoon to get rid of the ridiculous piece of lemon?
“Is it alright?” Mélanie queried, a trifle anxious. “Looks good.” They were both watching me with great intensity and a sense of expectation. Somewhere a clock ticked. I reached out a hand, picked up the cup, and drank. Julien smiled, proud of his wife. “Good?” “Delicious,” I said. And it certainly was – absolutely delicious. The heavy scent of it filled my nostrils, overpowering almost, yet the taste was as delicate as a passing shadow. It was tea alright, my memory told me that, but it was like tasting it for the first time, fresh, intriguing, oddly foreign. I liked it.
I congratulated Mélanie and she blushed with pleasure.
We finished the pot and Julien said, “Digestif? Liqueur?”
If someone had put a gun to my head, I couldn’t have given an example of either.
“Whatever you’ve got,” I said, suddenly a man of the world. A squat brown bottle was placed on the table. “Cointreau. Flavoured with orange blossom.” Not strictly true, as I was to discover later, but close enough. It sounded a most marvellous and exotic drink. I allowed a little of the almost glycerine-like liquid to trickle past my lips and inside my mouth, where it exploded in a great cascade of flavour. My eyes filled with tears. “This is good.” It was truly nectar of the gods; amazing. I drank some more and finished the glass. “Another?” It was almost midnight when I finally rose to go. I thanked them for a wonderful evening, and walked home, the taste of oranges still in my mouth.