Tea, kung fu and the Kelly kettle

Paul Smith
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Tea is a wonderful indulgence — soothing, healing and refreshing, a calming organic antidote to life’s stressful days, long hours of toil and even nasty weather.

How did nature ever manage to package such versatility and healing goodness into a simple leaf? Have you ever wondered where and how the gift of tea came about? I did a

little digging.

There’s an ancient myth dating back to the Tang Dynasty in China that gruesomely sheds light on the mystery of tea. A 6th-century dude by the name of Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan Buddhism, is credited with planting the first tea bush in a rather odd and hardcore kind of circumstance. Bodhidharma was quite a colourful character, a Shao­lin monk, and credited with first training his disciples in the fighting arts, which led to what we now know to be kung fu.

It seems Bodhidharma did a bit of meditating, to relax his nerves, and see the world more clearly. After meditating aside a stone wall for nine years, he fell asleep. So disgusted was he at such lack of self-discipline, Bodhidharma drew his blade and cut off his own eyelids. He cast them upon the fertile earth, where they sprouted and grew into tea bushes.

I suspect this epic legend, in the spirit of our own tall tales like those espoused by the likes of Uncle Mose and Buddy Wasisname, to be somewhat exaggerated. In any event, I think old Bodhidharma was a force to be reckoned with, a little like Chainsaw Earle maybe, but perhaps in possession of deeper intellect.

Did you ever ponder, while drinking a strong, dark brew aside a winter campfire, the fascinating history behind your simple, but oh-so-satisfying, cup of tea? Tea originated in China, used as medicine and healing as far back as 1500 BC. It wasn’t until around the 3rd century AD that folks started drinking tea as a regular daily drink. The Chinese gave tea to Portuguese traders in the

16th century, and from there it spread around the world. It’s proliferation to becoming the most commonly enjoyed beverage on planet Earth has changed the industrial face of nations and set sail the fastest and tallest ships.

India had no tea. Tea was not a native plant. The British came and wanted tea for themselves and a place to grow it. They had grown agitated with the Chinese monopoly on their beloved liquid stimulant. There was no Red Bull in those days and tea was serious stuff.

So the British planted Chinese seeds in Indian soil and tea flourished. In fact, today India is one of the leading exporters of tea in the world. Many thanks to the English afternoon tea drinkers.

Need for speed

We’ve all heard of the clipper ships. Those are the tall, elegant square-riggers that even today’s sailors often have tattooed on their bodies to celebrate the sea.

Tea from China could be sold

for a tidy profit in New York and London. Merchants commissioned shipwrights to build super-fast ships for carrying low-mass, high-value commodities like tea, spices and opium.

These Ferraris of the sea, with masts sometimes as high as

20-storey buildings, are known as clippers. They carried a cloud of sails controlled by a complicated web of rigging that rose above a sharp bow and a sleek, narrow hull.

They were obviously engineered and built for speed. Their long, lean profile, combined with the enormous driving power derived from hectares of canvas, allowed the ships to “clip” along at speeds that earlier generations of sailors never dreamed of, and later generations never matched. All in the name of tea; enjoy, with thanks, to the last drop.

Cold day comfort

On a freezing day, while casting lines on a pond or river, there’s not much better than a hot cup of tea to warm the soul and lift the spirits. This is particularly true when the trout refuse to bite.

I went sea trout fishing last weekend with a few of my buddies. It was cold, snowy on times, and consistently windy. There wasn’t much shelter and not a whole lot of dry wood for a fire.

Enter Matt Brazil’s Kelly kettle, an amazing innovation by salmon “gillies” from the Emerald Isle, again in the name of tea.

In Ireland there’s a tradition of angling for springers, or early run salmon, that enter rivers in early spring or late winter. Naturally, the fishing is a cold affair suited only to the heartiest fishers. Notwithstanding, even robust anglers need hot, steaming tea to survive the damp cold of spring and nourish the relentless optimism that’s the silver seekers most common denominator.

A device was needed that could boil water quickly and efficiently, with little but scraps of wood and debris.

Sometime in the 1890s, on a plot of land on the shores of Lough Conn, County Mayo, Ireland, a young Patrick Kelly, a farmer and avid angler, developed his first super kettle. He fancied tinkering in his cold shed and daydreaming of the first sealiced spring salmon.

The power of purposeful tinkering can never be underestimated. Bicycle mechanics are credited with the first sustained powered flight, not scientists or engineers. And to catch salmon is the ultimate motivator.

A Kelly kettle — generically known as a volcano kettle — will boil water in as few as three minutes when fuelled by good-quality dry sticks and twigs. It is essentially a double chimney with the water contained in the outside jacket. Fire burns up through the inside and transfers heat with incredible efficiency to the surrounding water.

These are wonderful devices to brew a quick hot tonic while enjoying the wild country and waters in cold weather. And here in Newfoundland, we get more than our share of nasty days. It’s a wonder some resourceful woodsman on this side of the Atlantic didn’t find a way to fashion tin or copper into a better kettle. Alas, credit must go to our cousins in the old country.

Matt Brazil, Cameron Gosse and yours truly certainly enjoyed our tea by South River in a snow flurry on Easter weekend. Matt likes to take some credit for his kettle, he being the only Irish descendent amongst our angling brotherhood. His family has tracked their ancestry to a stone house in Kerry, although that’s quite a jaunt south of Mayo, not much chance of relation to the kettle folks. But one never knows for sure in these matters.

If I’ve perked your interested in Kelly kettles, check them out at www.kellykettle.com. The grandchildren of Patrick Kelly, and possibly Matt’s distant cousins, are still catching salmon and making kettles in Ireland.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every

opportunity. He can be contacted at


Geographic location: China, India, Ireland New York London Emerald Isle Lough Conn Newfoundland Brazil South River Kerry Mayo

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Recent comments

  • Sam So
    May 05, 2013 - 08:08

    I love tea and interest in learning about specific rituals and cultural traditions, and studying tea encompasses this basic interest and expands upon it into other realms of inquiry, The variety and the specificity of tea traditions in almost every country in the world is astonishing, and it provides me with rich fields of exploration – a seemingly inexhaustible source of topics for reading, writing and discovery. Besides the culture, the tea also give our body the real benefit. Please visit my website: www.greentealike.com

  • O McMahon
    April 07, 2013 - 10:49

    As Irish as my surname is I can't endorse the use of the Kelly kettle. These things dent easily and they leak. The water capacity of even the large ones is not great and use them once and its hard to get them going once again.These things are useless in wet or damp weather. A Kelly kettle is a bulky thing that you must lug around and after a few uses, esp with spruce, the thing stinks to high heavens. I suppose my biggest complaint is that you can't make coffee with them.If you want a cuppa, save some serious bank, and use an old apple juice can.

  • Avid Reader
    April 07, 2013 - 06:11

    I love reading Paul Smith's columns. He has a great writing style and exhibits such a love of life and for his family. However, he also puts a lot of effort into finding out information about techniques or products that enhance the outdoor living experience in a simple way, which makes his columns very informative Thank You.