Nous ne sommes pas paresseux. Nous prenons le temps de vivre, ce qui n’est pas le cas des occidentaux. Pour eux, le temps, c’est de l’argent. Pour nous, le temps n’a pas de prix. Un verre de thé suffit à notre bonheur, alors qu’aucun bonheur ne leur suffit. Toute la différence est là, mon garçon..
We are not lazy. We take time out to live our lives, unlike Westerners. For them time is money. For us, time is priceless. A glass of tea is enough to make us happy, whilst no amount of happiness is enough for them. That makes all the difference, my boy…
Yasmina Khadra — Ce que le jour doit à la nuit (What the Day Owes to the Night)
Teatime seems to have become a quaint anachronistic habit in Britain. Foreign visitors are probably the only ones carrying out this time-honoured ritual in the many Olde Tea Shoppes scattered around the country. Those frequenting these establishments seem to think we British spend our time eating crustless cucumber sandwiches and enjoying a nice cup of Earl Grey.
In Algeria, by contrast, it remains an important social ritual. I honestly don’t know what this small mid-afternoon meal is called in Algerian Arabic, but my mother-in-law used to call it la casse-croûte (the snack), one of the few expressions she knew in French, and she would look forward to it with the same anticipation as she looked forward to every meal. For her, a lunch (imekli) had to be a “proper” lunch, incorporating some kind of meat and perhaps a side order of chips. Above all, it had to be hot. Not for her a quick sandwich, or a chunk of bread and cheese. As for dinner (imensi) — well, it would not be a real dinner without a bowl of couscous.
So when I had first visited the family villa in Bellevue, I had been surprised to see the table laid again at four o’clock in the afternoon with small plates, cups, baskets of bread, butter and jam. The old, dented, pewter coffee-pot, together with a jug of hot milk, took pride of place on the table. It had seemed only a couple of minutes since we had demolished a copious lunch and yet here was what looked like another breakfast.
If we were really lucky — and huge efforts were made in those first days to impress me— there would be plates of cakes or thivouline, Algerian sweet fritters. Perhaps we could find room for a couple of wedges of themsbousht, a kind of dense, sweet omelette made from semolina and eggs? Or be persuaded to partake in some temthount, bread that could be baked in the oven, but also fried in oil? Of course, almost everything was firstly fried, then drenched either in butter and honey, or a sugar syrup (sherbet). Enough to send anybody into a sugar coma.
Although the café au lait was probably influenced by the French, and indeed the idea of afternoon tea was originally meant for famished schoolchildren returning from their classes at four o’clock —the French goûter — it had been adopted enthusiastically by Algerians to include anyone around at the time.
One afternoon, during those first few days in Bellevue, T’s mother had led me ceremoniously down into the gloomy garage space under the house. Coming in from the bright sunlight, it was difficult to see at first, but I could gradually make out amidst the shadows and surrounded by ladders, old buckets and rusty utensils, the figure of The Witch Downstairs crouching over -— no, not a bubbling cauldron (that was to come later) — but a huge gas ring on which was placed an enormous frying pan, or tajine. She was ladling what looked like pancake batter into the hissing oil. Her daughters stood, or rather knelt by her, one armed with a bowl of melted butter and and the other with a jar of honey. It was rather like an assembly line of deliciousness.
Once brushed with butter and drizzled with honey, the resulting sizzling concoction was handed to me on a plate. It smelt divine, fragrant with the scent of orange-blossom water, and resembled a giant crumpet. This was the famous crêpe berbère, or Berber pancake, known as thigherifine in Kabyle, baghrir in Arabic and sometimes affectionally nicknamed mille-trous (thousand holes.)
As fate would have it, I was to eat them many years later, gussied up with a few raspberries and a dredging of icing sugar, in one of London’s most expensive “ethnic” restaurants. They were not a patch on the ones eaten with my fingers in that cobwebby garage space under the family villa.
Of course, teatime as a guest in anybody else’s home meant that the ceremonial was ratcheted up a notch. A maïda, or small round table, would be dragged out and huge trays would be ceremoniously brought in, on which reposed stainless steel thermos flasks of hot milk and coffee, and — if you were really posh — an orange-blossom water sprinkler.
One of those traditional curly silver-plated teapots, looking like something straight out of The Arabian Nights and surrounded by its phalanx of gold-rimmed tea glasses, would be on another tray. As a final decorative flourish, the teapot would have a sprig of fresh mint stuck in the spout.
Finally, another huge tray with plates of cakes, a pile of m’semen — flaky pancakes folded into squares like handkerchiefs, hence their nickname mouchoirs, or squares of m’besses, a melt-in-the-mouth semolina cake originating in Oran — would be carried in, with the bearer, usually a teenage daughter, literally staggering under the weight.
A word to the wise: there is a knack to drinking boiling-hot tea from one of those dinky little glasses. Of course it has no handles, so what to do? You hold it around the rim, above the level of the tea. Despite this, there were always a few painful moments and quick blowing on to scalded fingers.
Drinking mint tea without sugar is rare, so lumps of sugar were originally hacked from huge loaves of the stuff before being added to the teapot and the resulting concoction boiled up on the stove. Nowadays a simple handful (or two) of sugar lumps is added. My mother-in-law would even sweeten beforehand the milk boiled for our café au lait, until I explained that I did not take sugar in my coffee. She looked at me as if I had suddenly grown two heads.
Mint tea is also served in the evening, after dinner, as a digestif. This time, however, besides the omnipresent cakes, there are salty snacks, the favourite being roasted, salted peanuts. With one difference. In Algeria, salted peanuts (kowkow) are served preferably hot and with the skin still on.
T. just loved the ritual of rolling the peanuts between his fingers to remove the brittle skin and then popping them into his glass of tea. He would then fish them out with his teaspoon when they floated to the surface. Oh — and the polite way of drinking tea was to slurp it. Yes, you heard me correctly. Slurping the hot tea as noisily as possible was impeccable Algerian etiquette.
My main problem was that it is considered extremely impolite in Algeria to serve tea or coffee without the accompanying plate of home-made cakes. Normal biscuits were not readily available, unless you count the sickly-sweet ones meant for children. Bought pastries were frowned on. I did not have a freezer full of beautifully decorated cakes like most Algerian wives, ready to be whipped out at the first sighting of a guest on the horizon.
Once again, I had been found wanting.