Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tea with your sugar?

In Marrakech people love sugar with their tea. In the UK, I grow mint in our conservatory just so as to be able to make tea in those beautifully decorated Moroccan glasses and remember the Hideous Kinky city. In the UK tea with milk used to be the drink that embodied Britishness even though the number of coffee chains now well exceeds that of English tea parlours. Which hot drink is it that makes you think of Malta? Mark Anthony Falzon writes about the ħanut tat-te' on today's Sunday Times.

John, a close relative of mine who is not Maltese, told me the other day how he had been charged 30 (euro) cents for a coffee in Vittoriosa. He wasn't complaining of course, and in fact asked me how come the cost of living in Malta was so heart-warming. It turned out he had forgotten two important details. First, the place was a 'men's bar', as he put it; second, the coffee had come in a glass.

This then was John's first brush with what we might call the 'Maltese coffee shop' - or, as better known, the ħanut tat-titotla (lit. 'teetotal bar'). I'm sure it won't be his last. He happens to dabble somewhat, and rather effectively, in anthropology and will no doubt be familiar with the saying that the way to a culture's heart is through its coffee. Or rather the context of its drinking it.

How 'Maltese' are the ħwienet tat-titotla? I'd say as Maltese as it gets, which simply means that we tend to read into them for elements of 'Malteseness'. Thus the noisy atmosphere will be interpreted as our 'natural Latin rowdiness', the whiff of illegitimate cigarette smoke as our national disrespect for law and order, and the heaps of pastizzi flakes as the sign of a generally unhealthy population.

We might add that the Maltese coffee shop is unique in that tea, rather than coffee, is the favoured choice. Which brings our history, in this case our take on British heritage, into the equation. Italians often complain that we couldn't make a 'proper' coffee at gunpoint, and they're probably right. We can't make coffee all'italiana simply because we are not Italian, and don't want to be. But we also prefer our tea not to come in a cup, or in the company of watercress sandwiches.

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