Wednesday, 1 April 2009

African Tea

Needing to get my yearly Africa fix, some friends and I organised a trip to Burkina Faso and Mali. The FESPACO film festival was being held in Ouagadougou and we thought it would be the perfect time to see something of West Africa. I was left speechless with admiration for these beautiful countries, especially Burkina Faso which I would return to in a heartbeat. The south in particular is delightful with glorious countryside, very special people, and a capital city to lose your heart in. The only downside is the women are so beautiful and so exquisitely dressed that we, red-faced and in sweaty tee-shirts, were left rather beaten about the ego.

Of the two, Mali is the tea drinking country. Straddling the Sahara desert, the Sahel and in the south, sub-tropical grasslands, Mali has palpable Berber and Tuareg influences. The country is also very Muslim and all this is reflected in their tea drinking - a tradition familiar to anyone who has visited North Africa. The only difference is in Mali they do not add bushels of fresh mint.

You feel these influences immediately as you cross the border. While Burkina Faso had a few roadside kiosks selling cups of Liptons and Nescafe, Malians were always brewing up fresh pots of morning, mid-morning, lunchtime, post-lunch and evening tea outside their shops and stalls.

Unfortunately I wasn't a huge fan of this Malian brew. Strong and very sweet, I appreciated the experience of drinking it by the banks of the River Bani with friends and Mopti's curio sellers than the tea itself. Made with cheap China green tea, it is boiled up for about 20 minutes over little braziers and then decanted into a teapot and well sugared. The brew is then repeatedly poured from a great height into small glasses to foam up the tea. I never managed to master this technique, even with the shouted encouragement of my travel companions.
"You've got to pour it from higher up! Higher! HIGHER"

The teapot and glass is then placed on a tray (by now wet and sticky from having poured the tea over my hand and tray rather than into the glass) and offered around. Only one or two glasses is ever needed since the tea is shared. The skill comes into foaming up the tea adequately and then being able to measure it out so that everyone gets to have a sip.

Every time we were invited to tea we would be told of a Dogon/Fulani/Bambara saying that goes "the sip is bitter like death, the second is mild like life and the third as sweet as love". After hearing the same saying from almost everyone we met, it lost its romance. I took down the Dogon version but looking back on my notes, I suspect that my transliteration will one day embarrass me so I won't repeat it.













After two weeks I did start to long for a cup of something special and I was glad we bookended our trip with time in Paris where good tea may be found if you know where to look - I urge you to make a beeline for La Maison des Trois Th├ęs on Rue Gracieuse (no.33).

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