The only brew, as prescribed in the Talmud

Coffee is for when we go abroad to frugal places like Israel, where Wissotsky tea-bags are hung out on a washing line and reused twice

September 04, 2020 10:45

Walking through a half-empty West End on a weekday morning, I see a queue of young men and women snaking round a corner. Toilet paper? I wonder. No, they don’t look that desperate. British Airways refunds? Not a hope.

Turns out they are lined up at Chris Witty intervals outside one of those boutique barista places where coffee is dispensed, if you wait long enough, for three quid a shot.

Personally, I don’t get it. This is England: we drink tea. The other stuff is for when we go abroad to frugal places like Israel, where Wissotsky tea-bags are hung out on a washing line and reused twice to the point of insipidity, or to New York where the boiled water is so brackish and the milk so long-life that a cup of tea tastes like dishwasher liquid at McDonalds.

In the south of France you can practically get arrested for ordering tea and in Germany they chortle behind cupped hands at the ridiculous Englishman who imagines tea is, as the song goes, “a drink with jam and bread”. How quaint.

But now, right here in the heart of London, tea is being swept out to sea by a coffee rush, a fad that seems to me to be more demographic than gustatory. There are no queues at McDonalds for the “quality coffee”. Maybe because it costs 99p. The queues are for the three-quid kind that proclaims (a) I can afford it and (b) you can’t. It’s class war in a coffee cup.

So I moseyed off to John Lewis for a dose of normality and was importuned by a persuasive salesperson who, asking if I used a Nespresso at home, recoiled as if stung by a bee. “But that’s anti-social,” she cried. “It only makes one cup at a time. You’ll be left with no friends.”

You see what I mean? George Clooney led a revolution in which coffee is now the chief denominator of class, wealth and social success, while good old English tea gets given away free at food banks. Where is Earl Grey in the nation’s hour of need? Who will ride to the rescue of Darjeeling?

Let’s be clear that this is an ethnic issue. Tea is a Jewish drink, traditionally replenished from the samovar in the corner while we discuss a talmudic conundrum. Coffee never resolved anything.

Tea is the first letter of teyku, which is the word the Gemara uses when rabbis have argued themselves to a scoreless draw and require warm rehydration.

Tea is taken in a tall glass with lemon, and a long spoon sticking out.

In a kosher café in Warsaw, it is related, three Jews order tea. One specifies with lemon, the next “without sugar” and the third “in a clean glass, please”. The waiter returns with beverages on a tray. “For whom the clean glass?” he demands. You see what I mean? Tea was Jewish in character before it became English.

In the early years of the state of Israel, ophthalmologists were perplexed by a peculiar eye injury suffered by civil servants and Jewish Agency clerks. After extensive behavioural investigation, it was found that the sufferers neglected to remove the long spoon before drinking their tea. Only in Israel.

Still, there are circumstances where I make an exception for coffee. In Manhattan I used to stay at the Metropolitan Club, invited by a friend in North Carolina who shunned New York but hated to see his club membership go to waste.

Anyone who knows New York history will be aware that “Metropolitan” is code for not-Jewish. The Metropolitan Museum was founded by chaps called Hunt and Jay. The Metropolitan Opera did not let Jews into its “Diamond Horseshoe”until it was saved from insolvency by Otto H. Kahn. The Metropolitan Club did not admit Jews as members. My North Carolina pal, a half-Jewish Catholic, took particular pleasure in smuggling me into the club’s Valhalla-like brocaded expanses.

Each morning, I marched past the uniformed flunkeys, a tallit bag under my arm, on my way to the Safra Synagogue, three blocks up on East 63rd.

Before they let you into Safra, you have to pass a trolley that wafts celestial smells of Syrian coffee with cardamom, served in exquisite china cups, none of your utility American polystyrene.

With cup in hand, you enter the sanctuary and don phylacteries, taking small sips between rotating the leather straps. God wakes up and smells the coffee. It sharpens the attention and wards off my devil of jetlag.

Coffee before Kaddish is the rule at Safra and I became addicted.

Judaism does not make life easy for the Jews. A sip of Sephardi qahwa at the start of day can make all the difference. Safra is just my cup of tea.

September 04, 2020 10:45

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