TEA PARTY

French Property News - - Real Life -

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.

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