Boronia Tea Duelling

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the extensively expanded cottage that had once serviced the small whaling operation at Boronia Beach was turned into the Boronia Hotel. According to the Greater Hobart Trails:

“It was popular in the days when the old ferry docked at the jetty at Kingston Beach bringing day-trippers from Hobart. Folk would visit the hotel for a cup of tea and wander through its terraced rhododendron gardens down to Boronia Beach.”

Yet this tiny snippet of information is all that is available online. Questions are posed on the Internet, of the history of the hotel, and what happened to the building, and they go unanswered. Bloggers stroll beneath the cliffs of Boronia Beach, never seeing the historic homestead.

I only discovered how mysterious the old Boronia Hotel is after my partner and I started renting it a year ago, when it hadn’t been permanently lived in for about two decades. In my experience, the mysteries of the colonial building are usually: why is the possum screaming again? Where is this new leak coming from? Is that sound under the floorboards a wombat or the awakening of the undead?

Nevertheless, it has been the most perfect venue for hosting events. So, two years after the inaugural Antipodean Tea Duelling to celebrate my quarter century, inspired by the National Tea Duelling Championships I’d witnessed at the Lincoln Steampunk Festival, it was time to duel at Boronia.

We’d learned at the previous event that Arnott’s Nice biscuits were the most appropriate weapon, so contestants added milk and sugar to the tea*, dunked their biscuits for 3 seconds, and then competed to be the last to cleanly “nom” their biscuit.

Various strategies were employed: hovering the biscuit over an open mouth, eating the biscuit early and hoping that the others would push it for too long until the soggy biscuit collapsed, and sheer will power conveyed through eye contact. One contestant amused the crowd by rolling his sleeves, tying up a neckerchief and adding preposterous amounts of sugar to his beverage, but to no advantage as it turned out.

November again proved both convenient and an excuse to celebrate myself, so I pulled out one of those splendid unfolding teas, and my dear friends brought an array of impressive and delicious baked goods.

As well as the most spectacular, uniquely designed and hand-made tea duelling holster:

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Then there was feasting on baked goods, lawn games, more tea duelling, cuddling with the baby poultry. There was also the first known Tim Tam Slam-Off… which was only semi-successful and definitely needs more testing.

Then, in very Victorian fashion, the remaining party partook of a leisurely stroll down to Boronia Beach.

It was a glorious day, with glorious friends, although unfortunately not everyone could attend… ensuring that the tradition must be continued!

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*Tasmanian Breakfast Tea, from the very local Kingston company The Art of Tea.

Many many more photos on Flickr.

Antipodean Ginger Nut Tea Duelling

British traditions in Australia have had, for many decades now, a fierce Australian-ness to them. Take our names, for instance. Most of those Australians with British ancestry have a British name, but we tend to rampantly turn them into diminutives: David is Davo, John is Johnno, Shane is Shazza. For that matter, breakfast is brekky, barbecue is barbie, afternoon is arvo. And then there’s our flag, which is basically the Union Jack with the The Southern Cross stuck on the corner.

So it should come as no surprise that a competition involving dressing up in Victorian period costume and dunking biscuits into tea, a seemingly necessarily British activity, should incorporate a great Aussie bikkie* in the antipodean version. Or, in this case, several varieties of the same great Australian biscuit.

Antipodean Tea Duelling, The Duel

You see, back in the Victorian era, William Arnott, a Scottish immigrant to Australia, set up a bakery in New South Wales. (Even our place names are an Australianised Britain.) His sons continued to run this bakery in New South Wales, until amalgamations and acquisitions of interstate bakeries in the 1960s led to the national company. Then, disaster! The four bakeries, running out of different states, all using different recipes for Ginger Nut Biscuits, trialled baking them to the New South Wales standard. Non-New-South-Welshmen protested vigorously, and Arnott’s decided to maintain the four recipes, even when baking them in a single bakery and giving them identical packaging (apart from nutritional information).

According to the Arnott’s Facebook page (or at least a friend’s reproduction of this passage, as I can’t find the original!):

So now in Queensland, Ginger Nuts are thin and sweet, with a dark colour. In New South Wales they are small, thick and hard, with a light colour. In Victoria and Tasmania, they are bigger, softer and sweeter. While in South and Western Australia, the biscuits look similar to their Victorian cousins, but taste sweeter.

On this particular occasion, being the first known Tasmanian Tea Duelling tournament, we had only managed to supply the Queensland and Tasmanian/Victorian versions of the biscuit.

The tournament was ostensibly held in honour of the quarter century celebration of the year 1989: the year of the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the fall of the Berlin Wall and – coincidentally – my birth year. Thus we had gathered a group of discerning gentlefolk in their best Steampunk attire at the Cascade Gardens, below the impressive colonial façade of the Cascade Brewery. We set up the picnic tables with tablecloths, laid out home-made baked goods, fired up the hiking stoves, and brewed ourselves a good Australian Breakfast tea with Ashgrove milk.

Then, the challengers stepped forward.

Tea Duelling is a brilliant sport that I’d seen played at the Lincoln Steampunk Festival in England a few months previous, so I’d decided to import it to the colonies. None of us had ever played before, but we were so eager that we decided to play four people off against each other in the first round.

Eyeing each other off, and under my command, the challengers added Ashgrove Milk (or not), sugar (or not), and chose from amongst the mix of Queensland and Tasmanian Ginger Nuts.

Then, it was time to dunk.

Using the British tradition as a guide, I counted for three seconds. The longevity of the round indicated that the Ginger Nuts were made with far more gingery strength than normal dipping biscuits, but it still turned into a surprisingly engaging spectacle. To our surprise, the milk-less competitor was at no disadvantage even with her hotter brew, and she came solidly second of the four. The winner became the new Tiffin Master, and thus the game continued, using Arnott’s Nice biscuits when we wanted shorter rounds. (This biscuit turned out to be the undoing of yours truly, since the soggy biscuit lost structural integrity at the vital moment, and collapsed partly onto my face, resulting in the winner being the first – and only – competitor to have nommed his biscuit.)

The result of this great Antipodean Tea Duelling Ginger Nut experiment? To be honest, we did not actually keep enough record to scientifically state the superior Tea Duelling variety of Ginger Nut. However, you can cheer yourself up by reading an excellent review of the teeth-breaking strength of the New South Wales Ginger Nut in this blog.

And you can further console yourself with the knowledge that Antipodean Gingernut Tea Duelling shall continue, until a Superior Tea Duelling Ginger Nut† has been determined.

*Bikkie and bikky are acceptable abbreviations of biscuit, but since Arnott’s themselves use bikkie I’ve adopted that here.

†Though we all already know that the Victorian/Tasmanian variety is the superior biscuit per se.

In my research on the history of Arnott’s, I also discovered a quiz answering what your biscuit preference says about your personality.

Tea Duelling (and Other Splendid Steampunk Adventures at Lincoln 2014)

“Competitors, dunk your biscuits.”

Tea Duelling, the biscuit choice

The room grows tense as the biscuits disappear into the tea. The only voice is that of the Tiffin Master, counting down the five long seconds.
“Withdraw.”
The dunkers withdraw their biscuits, and then settle themselves into comfortable positions. The elegantly attired lady, replete with miniature top hat, focuses her gaze on her soaking biscuit rather than her waist-coated and be-goggled competitor.
“Ahhh, the ‘vertical hold’,” nods the Tiffin Master, indicating the biscuits held upright in the dunkers’ fingers. “A very popular hold.”
The dunkers continue to stare resolutely at their soaking biscuits, watching for signs of a wobble. They need to be the last person to consume (“nom”) their biscuit to win, but only if none of their biscuit collapses onto their hand or anywhere else. The balance between waiting long enough to outlast the competitor and still performing a “clean nom” engrosses the entire hall of onlookers.
“The elevated hold offers the advantage of closing the distance between biscuit and mouth, increasing the chances of a clean nom,” comments the Tiffin Master, drawing attention to the lady with the tiny top hat, “but the lower hold has the advantage of resting on the table, keeping the hand more steady.”
The gentleman suddenly moves, consuming his biscuit cleanly, and the lady follows suit. We applaud loudly for the tiny top hat and her victory.

Tea Duelling was just one of the splendid events held at Lincoln’s Weekend at the Asylum VI, Europe’s longest running and largest Steampunk event. As a postgraduate researcher of neo-Victorian fiction, I’d managed to convince my Australian university to give me extra funding to attend this speculative neo-Victorian event whilst I was already in the UK for the British Association for Victorian Studies conference.

They say that immersing yourself in a culture is the best way to learn a language, and there is no doubt that Weekend at the Asylum is immersive. In its sixth year now, the entire historic Bailgate quarter of Lincoln is transformed by the markets, events and the more than 2000 costumed attendees.

One of the earliest events of the weekend was the enthralling Steampunk Western Shoot-Out, between competitors wielding painted and upgraded nerf guns. The unholstered category winner was a young lad, whose small stature assisted in his missing being the accurate target of the hilariously inaccurate weaponry.

The holstered category was won by a gentleman who pulled himself out of his wheelchair, made his way to his corner with the help of his cane, and then proceeded to annihilate his opponents with his superb accuracy. He even claimed victor in the three way shoot-out, to the triumphant cry of the woman standing beside me: That’s my husband!

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This was followed by the first round of Tea Duelling. I refreshed myself appropriately, with tea, although later in the day the refreshments were provided by Hendrick’s Gin. They generously offered free G&Ts for entertaining the garden of other attendees, so my ability to recite Wordsworth and Shakespeare was put to good use.

It was then back to the Ballroom for the excellent Costume Competition.

That evening was the Empire Ball. The event had sold out months earlier, but as always there were last minute tickets for sale, and I managed to snaffle one up.

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The next day was the Tea Duelling Championships, and the Wacky Races, including jetpack and cycle races. The highlight was the sportsmanship of the cycling competitors, who raced up the drive to the Castle, circled the court… and continued circling until the young boy being pushed had caught up and was on his way back. The adult competitors gaily fought it out for second place, to the cheering of the crowd.

At a small panel discussing international Steampunk, earlier in the weekend, we’d discussed the inclusivity of the genre. There are almost no rules to Steampunk, especially in comparison with The Society for Creative Anachronism (aka Medieval Re-enactment), and very few ways of “winning.” By far and large, Steampunk is about participation.

So in that spirit, perhaps I will bring Tea Duelling back to Australia!

EDIT: The first Van Demonian Tea Duel has indeed now been held! A few months after visiting Lincoln I decided that my quarter century celebrations needed a good Tea Duel, and gathered some well-dress gentlefolk to join me. Tea Duelling has been on the Australian mainland for at least a year.

A wonderful report of the weekend from Steampunk Journal. Bonus points for spotting me!

A pictorial guide to Tea Duelling.

Some great photos of the weekend from The Guardian.

And my own full resolution photos, on Flickr.

Speculative Fiction is definitely finding its way into academia, with the Steampunk Scholar leading the charge beautifully.