The Bluenose Tea Ceremony (and the Search for Fisherman’s Tea)

If you live in Southwestern Nova Scotia and place a “For Sale” sign in the window of a car parked in your dooryard, be prepared to provide the Bluenose Tea Ceremony to any potential buyers, especially to those from the more traditional cultures here—the African Canadian, the Mi’kmaq, the Irish, the Scottish, and the French—who’ve been here so long that their cultures have joined to become nearly all-of-a-piece, most certainly when it comes to tea.

The ceremony begins with the question, “Izzat yer car yer sellin’?” and carries on with long silences, slow nods, the odd query, and, often enough, the rolling of cigarettes and a hunkering down in the driveway to get a good look at the vehicle. (If your visitor hunkers, you’d best hunker, too).

In such instances you simply must offer tea. And if you wish to inquire about such a car parked in someone else’s dooryard, you may find that none of your questions will be answered until you accept a cup of tea from the seller.

The Bluenose Tea Ceremony has an ambience and a raison d’être all its own. It isn’t a thing that can be scheduled, because scheduling teatime makes you uppity (Who d’ya think y’are, the Queen?). You can’t see it coming and so must always be ready to stop everything to either accept– or to serve– a cup of tea.

Oh, how my workaholic soul once raged at these interruptions, these demands that everything be put on pause for the hunkering, the small talk, the knowing looks, the smoking, and the silent breaks, all so necessary to making the deal. Holy ol’ jumpin,’ can’t we just seal this without puttin’ me whole life on hold? my inner Calvinist shrieked. The torture was even harder to bear knowing that most of the time no deal would be reached.

The only silver lining was the wonderful quality of that obligatory tea, which we often referred to as “fisherman’s tea,” a secret blend of choice black and orange pekoe tea leaves, generously spooned into the pot and steeped for a good five minutes, if not boiled on the back of a wood stove and topped up periodically with more water or tea leaves as needed. When poured out the colour is a rich, deep amber, to which you add canned evaporated milk and lots of sugar if you want it. Drinking it black would be insupportable, and even whole milk is sometimes too weak to buffer the tea’s kick.

Fisherman’s tea isn’t to the gourmet taste; it’s one of those things you love because you grew up with it. Outsiders don’t often take to fisherman’s tea, just as they don’t often take to dulse, rappie pie, hodgepodge, or Solomon Gundy, to our great surprise, but there you go.

East coast grocery stores sell the same variety of teas as can be found anywhere, including that ubiquitous American brand of tea whose name I won’t mention but whose flavour is hardly better than that of dishwater. But true fisherman’s tea is produced only by three Canadian brands, the first two being uniquely Maritime: King Cole, Morse, and Red Rose. Not only do these brands deliver the right flavour and strength, they have just enough—or just the right kind of caffeine to renew one’s optimism in the face of life’s bewilderments. The caffeine rush actually feels different, more elated, without the grumpiness, bad nerves, and confusion that can accompany too many coffees.

A cup of fisherman’s tea is like a sweet, apple-faced friend waiting for a chat in the house after a morning of stacking wood, a pleasing ritual marking the intervals of your household chores, an essential component of church suppers, a steamy brew comforting hunters by the fire while their boots dry, a comforting aroma steaming on the table next to a warm stove when you wade home through the slush, sniffling and shivering, and yes, an elixir that grants fishermen the boost they need to keep up those long, gruelling stints at sea.

When I leave Nova Scotia I don’t bring any of this tea with me, so confident am I that I can find its equivalent just about anywhere. Is it not the age of globalisation? At the very least, I should be able to order it online.

In New England kitchens I find specialty teas, black, green, and herbal. I also find the ubiquitous American brand of tea whose name I will not mention but none of whose many products tastes much different from dishwater. The American tea sensibility, I learn, is vastly removed from that of the Maritime Provinces, where tea is a robust brew singing with tannic acid.

The closest equivalent to fisherman’s tea that I can find is Irish Breakfast Tea. Few New Englanders drink it, preferring to get their caffeine, if they get it at all, from coffee, so Irish Breakfast tea is easy to find, though often a bit stale, having sat on the tea shelf for several years in a cramped little square tin waiting for a Nova Scotian to come along and rescue it from a dusty demise.

But drinking Irish Breakfast Tea from a pretty little tin, in addition to not exactly being the same blend, goes against the spirit of fisherman’s tea, which sees a “specialty tea” as something akin to a prissily dressed little girl at a family picnic. Fisherman’s tea must be purchased in bulk: either loose leaves pressed into a block and wrapped in foil or cardboard boxes harbouring great bunches of teabags.

I try to order fisherman’s tea online with no luck. I get on Facebook and whine: Does anyone know where I can find good stout black tea in New England? A friend quickly replies, telling me about a wonderful online tea company. I order Earl Grey, Jasmine Green, and Irish Breakfast. I thank my friend, who turns out to be a total tea snob, using a special teapot that brews and steeps teas at the precise temperature and time length required for every type of leaf. She wants to buy me a teapot like this, as she’s mistakenly taken me for a tea gourmet. No, I say gently. No. Thanks so much, but I’m Nova Scotian.

On my visit to North Africa I find just two types of tea served in homes: a delicious green tea served with spearmint, and what the locals call red tea—actually a black tea satisfyingly similar to fisherman’s tea, boiled over a charcoal fire and served with lots of sugar.

The red tea is nice, but the absence of canned milk or cream does set one’s teeth on edge, so I rely on green tea and Arab coffee for my daily caffeine fix. When I ask for “English” tea in the cafés I’m repeatedly offered, to my horror, that ubiquitous American brand of tea whose name I will not mention but whose flavour is hardly different from dishwater. I soon stop asking.

Next, Montreal. I’m surprised that even here I can’t find my triumvirate of Canadian tea brands, even in the big box stores. I can find Red Rose teabags but they’re not as strong as those sold to the Nova Scotian market. In the ethnic sections I find black teas of low price and average quality, which are fine for mornings, but I need something more apt for that afternoon pick-me-up. Someone tells me about a local “tea boutique,” a term that makes me shudder but which does suggest a broad variety of choices.

In the boutique I find just one brand of extremely high-end tea of manifold types. The clerk looks like a diplomat, beautifully dressed and charmingly cordial, speaking in a soft voice and looking up at me with profound sincerity as he opens one great round tin after another, extolling the virtues of each product while using the tin’s broad lid to waft the heavenly fragrances my way.

“This jasmine green,” he says reverantly, “has been picked over seven times by rural villagers in order to ensure its purity.”

Okay, so I’ll try that. I decide to buy some China black, too. He highly recommends I also buy one of their special small metal tins to store my tea, to preserve its special flavour and quality. I decline, not bothering this time to offer the excuse that I’m Nova Scotian.

Again the tea disappoints. I bring some of it back with me on my visit to Nova Scotia. When I get to my parent’s yard I pull the little sachet from my purse, pour the tea leaves on the ground in a little heap, light it on fire, laugh fiendishly as it burns, stomp on it furiously, then go inside for a pot of real tea.

The stores are closed, so if my folks are out of tea, I’ll have to go scouting driveways for a car to buy.

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