By Jane Pettigrew
Tea found its way into Ireland in the 17th century. Yet because of the exorbitant cost, it was considered to be a luxury beverage and was drunk only in upper-class homes. By the second half of the 19th century, as British-grown tea from the colonies became more available and prices gradually reached a level that made it affordable to the entire population, sturdy black tea taken with creamy milk became the standard daily refreshment. Today, favorite blends balance rich robust Assams with powerful Ceylon and punchy Kenyan black teas. The Irish drink between four and six cups of tea a day—more per capita than anywhere else in the world. Cups of tea punctuate the social round—tea at breakfast, tea midmorning, afternoon tea between 3:00 and 5:00, high tea as an evening meal for some families at around 6:00, and more tea before bedtime.
During the first half of the 20th century, tea, along with sandwiches, scones, and cakes, was served in smart hotels. And on market days in the main towns, wealthy folk would spend the day shopping and then treat themselves to the luxury of afternoon tea before travelling home in time for dinner. The tradition of afternoon tea in hotel lounges and conservatories in both Northern Ireland and Eire continues today, and the same irresistible selections of savories, warm scones, and artistic displays of little pastries attract as much excited attention as elsewhere around the globe. Most hotels and tearooms focus on the time-honored classic menu, often using local Irish ingredients, but a few have tweaked the tradition by theming the food or by adding a little extra treat such as a tea cocktail or a mini feast of special desserts—just enough to intrigue and tempt.
Jane Pettigrew is an international tea expert, who has written 14 books on the subject, including the new edition of A Social History of Tea, coauthored with Bruce Richardson and published by Benjamin Press. A former tearoom owner, she is a much-sought-after consultant to tea businesses and hotels, a conference speaker, and a tea educator. Although her travels take her around the globe, she resides in London.