Marylyn Monroe famed amongst other things for her love of Tea once said that, “World Peace would be with us if politicians drank tea at meetings” – or something to that effect. And she was very true in her words, very true indeed. A cup of Tea does wanders to all that drink it.
Did you know that people in Britain and the Republic of Ireland consume the most tea per person in the world? I always thought it was Japan or China but then their cups are much smaller than our cups! It is also interesting to note that more than 2,000,000,000 cups of tea are drunk every day throughout the world! That is a gigantic amount of cups and I can but imagine how many I contribute to that figure, about one I might guess! In weight terms, that equals out to 2 and a half million tones of Tea being drunk throughout the world every year or from a British point of view just under 6lb’s per person per year is consumed!
Where does tea come from, who' had the first cup of Tea and why does everybody like it? The answer is not from the supermarket, my mother and because it is cheap and easy to make. There is a deep routed culture and history behind Tea, something that all dedicated Tea drinkers should have knowledge of.
Tea became very popular to the British gentry in the seventeenth Century. This was when Tea became widely known and built itself initially into an upper class act of snobbery! Tea at this time was only grown in China and was a closely guarded secret of the Chinese Emperors of the time. Tea was bought and shipped from China to the rest of the world, Japan, Formosa, India, America and Europe in a variety of ships of different nationalities. Dutch and Spanish ships competed with the massive fleets of the British Empire to carry tea to where it was most needed. For the most part companies like the Dutch East Indian Company whom first imported Tea to Europe and The British East India Company controlled most of the market for themselves.
From any old ship to specially built Clippers this tea was brought from China to the Western World in ever increasing quantities, yet no matter how many ships were built or how much tea was grown they could not keep up with the Western Demand! Famous ships' like the Cutty Sark will ring a bell with most. This ship is typical of those used purely to carry Tea from China to Europe and hence to the Tea Rooms’ of the wealthy. Large barrel like ships designed to carry as much cargo as possible and built with quantity in mind rather than of speed. The early Nineteenth Century saw ships like the Cutty Sark being replaced by sleeker and faster ships and in 1834 a ship called The Oriental completed a voyage from Canton to London in 95 days. 15 days less than the Cutty Sark would have taken.
Tea in America was the third most important import during the eighteenth century and Tea sparked off what was to become the separation of Britain and America – the War of Independence. Does the Boston Tea Party ring a bell? This was where armed immigrants dressed as Indians secretly boarded three clipper ships in Boston Harbor and threw all of the imported tea into the sea. A show of resistance against the high taxation of the British Government on Americans settlers and by throwing the Tea away they sparked off the war. Yep, the Boston Tea Party in December of 1773. Maybe they should have all just sat back and have a cup of tea to think about it, but then that would mean that Britain would still control colonies in America! Wow, except for “Tea” history would be so different.
In the late eighteenth/nineteenth Century America and Europe fast became the major players in the Tea Trade. Competition was fierce and ships battled the seas to leave first, sail fastest and arrive first to whichever port they may be going. Bigger ships, faster ships and more of them were used yet at no point could they keep up with the growing demand. Tea was rapidly being reduced in price and spreading through all walks and classes of society. The rich and the poor could now all relax with a cup of tea but only if faster ships could be built or more vessels could be found! The Chinese tried to keep the trade even with all countries but Britain in a show of determination wooed the Chinese with inbound Opium from India thus breaking any vestiges of rebellion. Through opium shipments and thus a resultant lack of orientation on the part of the Chinese through drugs the British controlled Tea Shipments out of China and to the rest of the world for many a year.
Bigger ships and faster ships but all still very slow and small in comparison to the ships of today. The start of the decline of the Clipper era was in 1869 when the Suez Canal opened thus shortening sailing times from Asia to Europe by many days. Then with the invention of the steam ship good-byes where said to the heroic dashes and brave men who battled the oceans to bring tea to our shores on the wooden sailing ships.
The story of Tea does not end with the demise of the sailing ships and clippers. Long before that happened many a budding tea drinker found great interest in Tea Growing. How was tea grown, where does it come from and many asked the simple question of “why do we have to buy it from China?” Of course, if the secret of “how to grow tea” could be found then all would be so much simpler. If somebody could get that secret from the Chinese then tea could be grown in other places and closer to the demands of European and American Tea drinkers. If somebody could steal the secret and grow it in India, Ceylon, Turkey and other such places where ships could ply their trade on shorter and therefore more frequent voyages and where tea was closer to the places it was needed in, life would be so much better.
Tea was first used in China a thousand or so years before the rest of the world even knew about it. It took a ‘thief’ in 1849 disguised as a Chinese Merchant to go to the Tea regions in China, to learn how the closely guarded tea was produced and eventually to bring back samples of the plants. In fact this ‘thief’ was Robert Fortune a Botanist from England and he was commissioned by the Tea Commission to steal from the Chinese and observe their secretive methods of Tea Making. Wow, what a brave man he must have been! He managed to watch and gain valuable insight into the arts of growing tea, to appropriate various tea plants and to take them to Calcutta. A Botanist to Thief to Tea Grower – an excellent career move!
He noted that: Tea needs loose, deep and acidic soil and high altitudes to grow best and he eventually saw his dream come alive with the planting of twenty thousand tea tree saplings at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains. And from this point we come across some of the famous names in Tea. Those that are with us today and who were at that time referred to as “gentlemanly Tea Merchants”. To name but a few: Thomas Lipton, Thomas Twining and James Taylor. Through Robert Fortunes thieving skills the Tea Island of Cyprus sprang into being, India became famous for its Assam Tea and Darjeeling and today Tea is now a major revenue earner for over forty countries.
Tea Drinking is a ritual in many a society. In China guests must be greeted with a bowl of tea, tea is synonymous with Buddhism in the Far East and to the Zen faith in Japan. Russians love of tea is depicted through the Samovar, in Morocco we have the famous Mint Tea and in Europe’s Tea Houses history and culture lives on deep and faithful as part of life itself. And in Japan one can gain a Diploma in Tea Mastery from one of three schools dedicated to the teachings in the “Way of Tea” (cha-do) So Tea culture is very strong all over the world but why is this so?
Why do we drink tea? Why do we insist on drinking tea every day of every week? What is it that makes us sit down and slowly consume a cup when there are things to do, shopping to get and kids to feed? Why do we suddenly give up all that is necessary and sit back with a cup of tea and smile as if we have not a care in the world?
The answer is in itself. People love Tea for its calming essence and the culture that goes with it. Tea is used in times of trouble and to escape from life, not because of any association but because Tea does have many a body altering ingredient, even if we know nothing about them. We in the Western World drink cups of Black Tea and do not associate such with any medical or body altering feature but little do we know. Even those thousands of years ago when China alone drank tea, they drank it to cure many an ailment or problem that they might suffer from. It is known today that certain teas can cure headaches, reduce cholesterol or improve ones sight amongst many hundreds of other cures and results. These are specialty teas and not the ones we associate with morning or afternoon Tea-time but they are readily available should one look into it. Our Western culture is sparked from the calming essence associated with the Black Tea, more from a cultural point of view than from its physical properties. For your information though; the average Tea contains vitamins A, B and E. A cup of tea is rich with minerals of iron, copper, zinc, sodium and contains fluoride to fight the cavities. So much, all in a cup? Yes, it is true that so much can be in so little! So whilst you are sitting back and relaxing, you can now think about what it is doing for you!
Two points that tea drinkers often struggle with is the question of milk! The first is the question of, “with or without Milk”? First of all Green teas and Mint Teas do not go with milk. They are kept well away from that sort of thing. Milk goes with Black Tea to dilute it’s often bitter and harsh taste and has stemmed from there into an everyday requirement. The second is that of milk before or after pouring the tea into the cup? Does one pour the milk in first and then the tea, or the tea first and then top up with milk? Each to his/her own way, I say, but there is a rather more rooted reason for milk first. Milk was originally placed in the cup first to prevent the gentle porcelain from cracking when the hot tea was poured into it. What becomes more important is whether or not the Tea is brewed in a Teapot or it is being infused in the Cup itself. I say this with regard to people who place a Tea Bag in the cup, then pour milk onto the tea bag and then add the boiling water. This is not allowed! This way destroys all the culture associated with Tea and needless to say the Tea itself does not infuse correctly. In this case the Milk must be added after the water and infusion has taken place.
Whilst writing all the above a certain picture kept coming into my mind, a piece of “Tea Culture” that is depicted in the famous Asterix and Obelix Cartoon Series. It is in the one where The Romans come to Britain to expand their Empire and are very upset because the British always stop fighting at ‘Tea Time”. The picture in my mind is of the Romans hanging around impatiently, wanting to attack and conquer the British, but they are all sitting back and sipping Tea – not fighting until they have finished their brews!
Beware though folks of the tea today! Tea bags are produced and made for the simple reasons of economy and ease of transportation to your supermarket shelves. Tea bags are easy to use but do be suspicious of a tea that as soon as it is in contact with water turns black! I am sure that it cannot be Tea. Stick to the real stuff that has taste. If you have any further questions please do go to the Tea Council Web Site to dialogue with the experts or to gain extra information to what has been given above. Failing that an excellent Book on Tea is available and called “The Little Book of Tea” and published by Flammarion. A French Publisher – good excuse to go to France and taste some wine!
“I’ll put the Kettle on and we can talk all about it”
Ieuan Dolby, from Scotland is an Engineering Officer in the Merchant Navy. He has been travelling the world for 15yrs on an endless tour of cultural diversification. Currently based in Singapore he writes various articles for magazines and newspapers and is working on a marine glossary.