How did tea come to England?

I found out today that not only is tea loved everywhere in the world, it’s the second most consumed beverage after water! Which made me think: how exactly did we come to like it so much in England?

As with any story of foreign products which became popular, tea was originally the privilege of the rich and royal. Apparently, the first time tea was offered in London was around 1660. But before you start dreaming of your usual cup of black tea made with just the right amount of milk, you must know it was actually Chinese green tea which Londoners would have tried first. And since it was served in public coffee houses, it would have only been men who drank it as women would only socialise in the confines of their homes at the time.

However, tea was also a favourite of Princess Catherine of Braganza, the wife of Charles II, who made it popular amongst the ladies at court, which consequently made the drink more popular and more desirable with everyone. At this point in time though, tea was mostly viewed as a medicinal drink believed to cure many problems including asthma! It was not until sugar was added, which also happened to be the luxury of the rich, that tea became more widely drank for pleasure than medicine and black tea overtook green tea as the favourite.

Catherine of Braganza
Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II (Image from History of Royal Women)

As import prices dropped, tea become more accessible to middle classes and, fuelled by the aspiration to mimic the wealthy, led to the consumption of tea as an established ritual which came with its own set of manners and traditions, much like the one related to afternoon tea.

An early James Bond – Robert Fortune

Before we go too far ahead into tea’s history, I need to tell you about a man that we owe our outmost gratitude to: Robert Fortune. You see, at the beginning all the tea imported into England came from China on Tea Clippers (more below). China kept the secret of their precious beverage under strict control including where and how it was grown and processed to be able to leverage it for export. The British had many attempts of uncovering the secret in order to replicate it on their own territories instead of paying the high Chinese taxes, but it remained closely guarded. One strategy was even to get the Chinese addicted to opium – but that’s a story for another time.

The best plan, in the end, was to train a spy with a classified mission. This top secret James Bond was called Robert Fortune and he was actually a botanist. He went to great lengths to find out how the Chinese produced the much desired tea leaves, including disguising himself as a Chinese tea merchant in order to travel on one of the boats that had access to the tea plantations high in the mountains. His diaries and explorations are fascinating and they shed a lot of light on tea production that was unknown at the time. One such fact is that all tea comes from one plant, contrary to the popular belief that green and black tea leaves came from different varieties.

Robert eventually managed to collect some seeds to take back to India (a colony of the British Empire at the time), where he was surprised to discover a relative of camellia sinensis – the camellia assamica variety.

The most famous Victorian ship of all: The Clipper

It wouldn’t be a complete story of how the English fell in love with tea without talking about Tea Clippers. Developed in the 19th century, clippers were the fastest sailing ships of their time and their image is probably the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions a ship from that period.

tea clipper
Image from Tea.co.uk

As they were constructed for speed, not capacity, they couldn’t carry large amounts of tea but they could reach 30 km/h – a speed which still hasn’t been beaten by modern commercial sail vessels. Not that we use sail vessels commercially that much anymore! But it meant they could bring tea more often, which made it fresher.

If you’re interested to see one of these beautiful vessels, you can visit the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, now kept in dry dock. It’s really impressive!

The interesting story of Gunpowder

Finally, I’d like to share the story of one of my favourite teas: Zhu Cha, which means Pearl Tea. This was one of the first teas ever imported into Britain. You have to remember that the only other way the English would have seen loose tea is as what we think of it today: varied sizes of dried leaves. As the name suggests, Zhu Cha is tightly rolled into little balls or pearls, but they are so small and so tight that they resemble gunpowder pellets – giving it its Western name. Contrary to what you might think, I find Gunpowder a very smooth and mellow green tea in comparison to the earthy Japanese Sencha. The Chinese aren’t great fans of it so most of the production is used in the Moroccan Mint blend which many of you might be familiar with. I’ll review it for you soon!

If you found this article interesting and you want to know more, rest assured that I’ve only just scratched the surface in England’s history with tea. There is plenty more to discover and if there is something you’d really like to know, just leave it in a comment below.

Until next time,

Anca

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