Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The wilder billy: Tea in the bush

Oh, there once was a swagman camped in the billabong,
under the shade of a Coolibah tree,
and he sang as he looked at the old billy boiling,
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

That's from the song "Waltzing Matilda," which is a lot like Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" in that it's not the official national anthem of its home country, but it damn well oughta be. To anyone outside Australia, of course, that verse constitutes practically another language. Ahem: A swagman is a migrant worker (Woody probably liked this one), a billabong is a small lake, Coolibah is a kind of eucalyptus — but it's the billy I want to focus on. (Hello, new Australian readers!) (Yes, I'm addicted to my metrics.)

Banjo Paterson, a poet, wrote the song in 1895 about a fellow who steals a sheep, gets caught for the crime, drowns himself and then haunts the campsite. He was just hungry. But he was thirsty, too, and like many rugged settlers of the Australian bush — believe it or not — he enjoyed a spot of tea.

Here's how they did it, according to The True History of Tea (which, yes, I've finally finished, so I'll cease yammering on about it):

You made a neat fireplace with stones, filled it with fallen eucalyptus branches, and built a tripod to hang the 'billy' from. The billy, a simple tin can with a metal wire handle, was filled with water from a nearby creek. Usually, a few eucalyptus leaves were allowed to fall into the can. When the billy boiled, one handful of tea was added for every person, with an extra handful for the billy. The smoke from the eucalyptus spread a wonderful scent, giving the tea a special flavor. After steeping for a minute or two, the billy was swung around the head three times to settle the leaves, and the tea served in tin mugs, with milk and sugar if one happened to have these at hand.

Afterthoughts: 1. Mmmm, eucalyptus tea. I love this idea. I almost want to catch a cold just to try it. 2. Mmmm, creek water. Then, of course — you wouldn't want to do that today unless you wanted heavy metals tea. 3. Next time I complain about the machinations of making tea, I'll stop, chuckle at the thought of me building a fire from scratch and swinging the pot around my head, and thank my modern conveniences.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't use that creek water these days, but I'm still looking forward to the opportunity to make tea over a bonfire like this. When I was young I lived out in the country and often participated in such parties. Now in the city I don't have the chance to do it anymore and I crave the experience of tea as in the wilds. Camping will work for it. --Teaternity