Imbued with associations of being a quintessentially British drink, tea, which has been consumed in the UK for close to 350 years, has a complex history which stretches much further back and afield. According to Chinese myth, in 2737 BC, the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was resting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water, and leaves from the tree fell into the hot liquid. Shen Nung, a celebrated herbalist, decided to try the infusion that his servant had inadvertently concocted. The tree was a Camellia sinensis, and the subsequent beverage was what we now call tea.
Tea drinking became established in China many centuries before it had been heard of in the West. Vessels for tea have been discovered in sepulchres dating from the Han Dynasty but it was under Tang rule that tea became firmly established as the national drink. It was shortly after this that the plant was introduced to Japan by Zen Buddhist monks who had travelled to China to study. It wasn’t until the 16th century, when Sen Rikyū established Japanese tea principles, that tea became a ubiquitous part of the culture. The Japanese regarded drinking tea as high art, emphasising the beauty in simplicity and the appreciation of the moment, incorporating the many ideals of Zen Buddhism into the practice.
During the latter half of the 16th century, there are the first records of tea among Europeans, mostly from the Portuguese who were living in the East as traders and missionaries. Though individuals may have brought back samples of tea to their native country, it was not the Portuguese who were the first to ship tea as a commercial import. This was done by the Dutch, who in the last years of the sixteenth century began to encroach on Portuguese trading routes. Tea soon became a fashionable drink among the Dutch, and from there spread to other countries in continental Western Europe, but because of its high price it remained a drink for the wealthy.
Tea trade routes along the Silk Road brought Chinese tea to Russia during the 17th century. These trade journeys, composed of camels and caravans, would often take over a year to complete, making tea expensive and reserved only for high society. The completion of the Siberian Railroad in 1880 changed all that, making tea widely available to all. Russian tea has become inseparable from the samovar, a tall urn used to boil water. On top of the samovar sits a teapot, which contains highly concentrated black tea called zavarka. The trading routes that brought tea to Russia also introduced the drink to Arab countries like Morocco. In Morocco, green tea is consumed with mint leaves and sugar, a refreshing beverage to consume in the hot and dry climate.
The introduction of Chinese tea plants, different from Indian tea, to India is commonly ascribed to Scottish botanist Robert Fortune. Fortune employed many different means to steal tea plants and seedlings, which were regarded as property of the Chinese Empire. Fortune introduced some 20,000 tea plants and seedlings to the Darjeeling region of India. He also illegally brought a group of trained Chinese tea workers who would facilitate the production of tealeaves. After most of the plants perished, it was soon discovered that India already had its own indigenous tea bush that grew in the Assam region.
The British East India Company cultivated tea in India to break the Chinese monopoly, propagating a liking for the drink among Indians, instilling the routine of tea breaks as a cultural norm among workers. Although India didn’t develop the highly elaborate tea rituals like those of China or Japan, tea became very much a part of everyday life. Black tea in India is often prepared with milk, sugar, and spices such as cardamom, fennel, and cloves. Indian-grown tea proved extremely popular in Britain, both for its greater strength, and as a patriotic product of the Empire. The first dated reference to tea in Britain is from an advert in a London newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, from September 1658.
Tea had been a high-status drink when first introduced, but had steadily fallen in price and increased in popularity among the working class, becoming a ubiquitous drink. The well-known British “afternoon tea” arrived in the 19th century, when it was common for only two meals to be served per day. The English grew hungry waiting for dinner, and became fond of having an assortment of sweets with tea and lemon in the afternoon. England is now one of the largest consumers of tea outside of China today, drinking mostly black teas like the bergamot infused Earl Grey and English Breakfast.
Feature image: Tea processing factory in Liping County, Guizhou Province, China (via Pinterest)