History - Memories of black billy tea

By: Bev Ross

Bev Ross recalls haymaking during her childhood ...

I watched, fascinated, as the man cut two forked branches from a nearby ti-tree. He knocked them into the ground, forks up, and set them about one metre apart. A blackened billy, part filled with water, was then threaded by its handle on to a straight stick, which was rested into the forks of the stakes. The billy hung over the fire.

Haymaking in the 1940s.
Haymaking in the 1940s.

In no time, steam was lifting the blackened lid, announcing boiling point. The man called out, “Where’s the tea leaf, Mum?” She pointed to a tin by the linen covered basket. He tipped a handful of the leaf into the boiling water, followed by another. He watched for a short time until the boil resumed, then closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. “Ahhh!”  he sighed in a moment of true pleasure.  “Black billy tea, Binky. There’s nothing quite like it!”  
I remember thinking the smell was rather wonderful, and I was eager to sample some, but when the ritual of tea making was accomplished, and served in enamel mugs, then milk and sugar were added, I decided that I’d rather drink milk on its own. The taste was very different to tea made indoors and brewed in a teapot.  Black billy tea had a smoke content and a stewed effect which only occurred in the outdoor variety. It was not to this child’s taste at all. “It was so strong you could stand your teaspoon up in it!” some were heard to say.

It was hay making time – a time when friends and neighbours pitched in to help each other in turn. I saw sweat pouring from the men as they sank to the ground for the few minutes rest, when food and tea was offered at 10am smoko. They gathered again at lunchtime, then again at 3pm smoko. Most of them took those times to roll their tobacco from a tin held in their back pockets into cigarettes, while a cloth was pulled from the basket and laid it out on the grass. The hostess had chosen a shaded spot under a nearby tree.
Food was extracted from tins and placed on plates upon the cloth. There were sandwiches of tomato and cucumber, and some with roast mutton or beef with pickle. They had made scones, buttered, with jam or ‘cockey’s joy’ (golden syrup) added. There were tarts and cake also. A bounty of food, delicious food, which disappeared quickly by those acquainted with healthy fare. They appreciated it, but weren’t in the habit of saying so.

Bev Ross, Mangawhai Museum


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