'There are few hours in life
more agreeable than the hour
dedicated to the ceremony
known as afternoon tea'
- Henry James
Have you got the kettle on because ‘this is the story of 2 leaves and a bud, its a story of rivers, mountains, history, politics, imperialism, espionage and addiction.’
Its the story of tea…
This post is a review of the wonderful Victoria Woods’ exploration into why we all enjoy a ‘nice cup of tea’. I’ve harvested some of her facts and phrases, but mostly I’m going to give you a sense of her findings from her extraordinary adventure into our love of tea!
How did this exotic fragrant leaf became a way of British life?
Why are we addicted to tea?
Tea is essentially a dull brown mundane accompanient to our ordinary life, and remains our most popular hot beverage as we drink over 60 billion cups of tea a year. What started as an aristocratic luxury, swiftly became imbued into all areas of British culture. We still get through 3 cups of tea for every coffee drank today. The way I see it, coffee is a date, tea is a marriage!
- Tea isn’t English or British
- Tea has over 5000 years of history
- In 17th century it was only grown in China (then a secretive and mysterious country closed off from the west)
- 1.3 billion people in modern China
- In 17th century it was a 2 year round trip from England
- Chinese make more tea and were drinking it long before we heard of it
- Shanghai played a big role in bringing tea to Britain, and partly because of tea, Shanghai is the most westernised city in China
At the Wuyi Mountains tea grew on hillsides. Tea was so precious because it could so easily be lost or damaged along its perilous journey on the way to Britain. Once it arrived here it was kept in locked Caddies.
- By the end of the 18th century Britain had gone crackers for tea, so hunt was on to see if we could grow tea ourselves and not be dependent on China
- Robert Fortune of the Botanical Gardens in Chiswick in the 1840s, went to China to see if he could get the information on growing tea, or the seeds he needed to grow it
- The first tea hunters thought green and black tea came from different plants, but this is not the case (it is just the way it is oxidised, roasted, basically processed)
- Buddhists were the first people to cultivate tea and the Da Hong Pao tea grown by monks was being used as a medicine, so it followed that when tea first arrived in Britain it was sold in Apothecaries
China would allow us buy tea, but wouldn’t let us know how it grew and didn’t want to trade. That was until we offered them Opium, which turned Victorian Britain into the biggest drug dealer in history. The money we made from dealing Opium meant that we didn’t have to use our countrys’ precious silver reserves to pay for our beloved tea. So the tea and opium trade were locked together – addiction!
The Opium of course had a devastating effect on China when it flooded in, but it meant that the tea came pouring out. The Emperor tried to stop this trade so the British Navy blockaded the Grand Canal and China capitualted. Opium had solved our problems, and gave birth to the golden age of the Tea Clipper – sleek ships such as the Cutty Sark, racing back to Britain from China with tea as their precious commodity. London was THE centre of the international tea trade.
- In 1801-1911 the population of Britain quadrupled, and the amount of tea drank grew 12 fold
- In mid 19th century tabacoo, sugar coffee and tea were the things that mattered!
- By 19th century even the working class had tea, it was transforming the country, and led us to rule the world!
We wanted to get tea from somewhere else other than China, and tea was too popular to risk loosing it as a commodity, so we needed to grow our own elsewhere….India was British! So the first Tea Plantations sprang up and the first tea was grown in Assam.
- 1823 Robert Bruce Scottish soldier visited Assam and was given a drink and he asked what plant it had come from, was it tea?
- He planted the seeds in Indian Botanical gardens to see if they were really tea
- 10 years later they decided it was!
- Within 20 years more than 50 tea gardens had sprung up. The first was in 1836.
- Compared to China, tea in British India was cultivated using modern industrial revolution techniques
- But the hand picking/plucking is still mostly done by hand by women even today
- By 1888 India had overtaken China as our main supplier of tea, and the Indian people started to drink tea themselves. Since the 1920s it has become their national drink
- The main city that lives and breathes tea is Calcutta
- Mass market tea came to India via the British!
So there we have it, tea’s a survivor!
Its a drink thats conquered the world, seduced and enslaved the British, and I very much doubt that it will ever disappear.
‘Arthur blinked at the screens and telt he was missing something important. Suddenly he realised what it was. “Is there any tea on this spaceship?” he asked.’ – Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
Tea has a rather blood stained history - it started a war, has underwritten the empire, and sparked a revolution:
Boston Tea Party
The history of the Boston Tea Party is taught to every American school child, and it happened nearly 250 years ago when America wa still Britis. In 1773, 3 Tea Clipper ships sailed into the Boston harbour carrying tea. The events that followed were really about tax, more specifically the 3 penny tax on every llb of tea imposed on them by British government. A huge crowd gathered but about 150 men took crates of tea, chopped them open and dumped it all into the harbour in protest. This sparked a revolution, and America took independence 3 years later.
A well kept secret: Americans drink 65 billion cups of tea a year!
Tea & Sympathy in New York
“To be born English is to have won first prize in the lottery of life.” - Cecil Rhodes
Moving on then to World War II, and what seemed to be very dull British qualities before the war; our sense of a need for routine, our faith in a nice cup of tea to resolve any problem, were embraced and this made us ‘Great.’
Tea was so important to morale, that supplies regulated by the government through rationing were stored around the country to avoid being destroyed by war. NAAFI vans (alongside the Salvation Army and WVS) were the picture of warmth and comfort. Tea urns were introduced for mass distribution of strong wartime issue tea!
Tea became more than a drink, it became a symbol of ordinaryness and courage combined, it pulled our morale together, gave us an identity as a nation, and a reason to fight.
” a good hot cup of tea worked wonders”, ” to be without tea was to be without life”
We won the war, back to work everybody!
The tea break became enshrined in British law – and brought on the age of the tea lady! Sadly the tea trolley was eventually replaced by the vending machine which wasn’t quite the same comforting social experience as the ritual of making tea had been. But this had already been replaced somewhat by the advent of the teabag, invented by accident in New York in the early 1900s by Thomas Sullivan, a tea broker who was using these little parcels to send out tea samples. Teabags changed the way we drank tea – we left ritual behind and went tea bag bonkers.
- 9 and half out of every 10 cups we drink is tea bag
- TV started broadcast in 1955 and dawned the 2 minute advert break to put the kettle the on.
We get a sense of nostalgia about tea, but are its glory days over?
Tea adverts now stress the benefits of young people getting together over a cuppa rather than social networking.
We have 80 tea tasters in Britain. The tea we drink is a blend from lots of different teas from different countries that vary from harvest to harvest (grown in 40 different countries).
I would like to thank Victoria Wood, or whoever wrote or commissioned this wonderful insight into British tea drinking. It was interesting, educating, and tea inspiring!
Happiness is good tea. Lots of tea drinking occured during the writing of this piece, and whilst watching the 2 part documentary! There is nothing better to look forward to than Afternoon Tea.
Make a perfect brew: recipe from UK Tea Council
- Use a good quality loose leaf or bagged tea
- This must be stored in an air-tight container at room temperature
- Always use freshly drawn boiling water
- In order to draw the best flavour out of the tea the water must contain oxygen, this is reduced if the water is boiled more than once.
- Measure the tea carefully
- Use 1 tea bag or 1 rounded teaspoon of loose tea for each cup to be served
- Allow the tea to brew for the recommended time before pouring
- Brewing tea from a bag in a mug? Milk in last is best
I’m sorry but I know the debate is an enduring one,
but milk in first!
Keep your pecker up! xx