We had a kettle; we let it leak;
Our not repairing it made it worse.
We haven’t had any tea for a week.
The bottom is out of the Universe.
– Rudyard Kipling
Tea, anyone? And what could be better than a chilled glass of ice tea, laced with sugar and lemon, on a hot summer day? Or a cup of hot tea with honey and lemon, when you are feeling under the weather! Much as I love my hot coffee to wake me up on a general day-to-day basis, when I feel a cold coming on, I want hot tea, fixed just the way my grandmother would make it for me. As an added bonus, I’ll have saltine crackers spread with real butter. My grandmother would make that for me, whenever I was staying with her and not feeling perky, or even as a snack before we went to bed at night. This is one of my ultimate comfort foods.
Perhaps thirty or forty years ago, I acquired a copy of a small book titled “THE LITTLE TEA BOOK”, written in 1903 by a man by the name of Arthur Gray, and published by the Baker & Taylor Company. (You may faint when I tell you that the price I paid, still written on the flyleaf in pencil, was $1.25). Though the prose and poetry is quaint and often antiquated, it remains charming and informative even today. Much of what I have learned about the history of tea was related to, or touched on nearly 100 years ago by Mr. Gray.
What you might not know is that, when you sip a cup of tea, you are partaking in a tradition that is thousands of years old. According to Chinese mythologist, in 1737 BC, the Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung (or Shen Nong, depending on whose history book you are reading), a scholar and herbalist (considered to be the father of agriculture and medicine), was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water. The Emperor, presumably for health reasons, ordered that his subjects boil water before drinking it. A leaf from the tree dropped into the water and Shen Nung decided to try the brew. The tree was a wild tea tree. According to Chinese legend, Shen Nong was conceived by a princess with a heavenly dragon as his father. However, according to another source, Shennong was the name of a primitive farming tribe in China’s remote past. One clever unnamed Shennong chieftain is said to have invented plowing tools, and discovered medicinal herbs, including tea.
And, according to yet another legend, Shen Nong would taste seventy-two poisonous plants a day but then would drink tea and be cured. (Legend doesn’t explain why Shen Nong ate 72 poisonous plants a day).
A Japanese legend traces the origin of tea to Prince Bodhidharma, a wandering monk and reformed womanizer who was possessed by guilt. After awakening from a dream of his previous conquests, he is said to have torn off his eyelids in repentance. (ouch!) When he later returned to the fateful spot, he found in their place an unusual bush. Eating the leaves inspired pious meditations. In India, the same prince supposedly took a pilgrimage to China, vowing never to sleep. After 5 years, drowsiness overcame him but by munching on the leaves of an unidentified tree, he was able to keep his promise (presumably all that caffeine). It is true that the prince did travel to China and became the founder of Zen Buddhism.
The Chinese t’u was often used to described shrubs other than tea, which led to some confusion when Confucius supposedly referred to tea or t’u when writing about the “sow thistle” plant in the Book of Odes.
Nevertheless, tea has been known since the very earliest of recorded history for being a healthy, refreshing drink. During the Tang Dynasty, (618-906 A.D)., tea became China’s national drink and the word ch’a was used to describe tea. It was thought to have medicinal value and contribute towards longevity. Reay Tannahill, author of “FOOD IN HISTORY” notes that, “When Haji Muhammad reported on it to the Venetian geographer Ramusio in 1550, he said that the Chinese believed that ‘one or two cups of this decoction taken on an empty stomach remove fever, headache, stomach ache, pain in the side or in the joints, and it should be taken as hot as you can bear it…’ “ Tannahill reports that those people would gladly give a sack of rhubarb, a Chinese plant much prized by European apothecaries, for an ounce of Chiai Catai.
Buddhist priests are credited with the spread of cultivation throughout China and Japan.
Around 350 AD, Kuo Po, a Chinese author of the Jin Dynasty revised the ancient Chinese dictionary, the Erh Ya. It included the first published account of methods of planting, processing, and drinking of tea.
The first book on tea “Ch’a Ching” was written in 780 A.D. (or 800 A.D, depending on your source) by the Chinese author Lu Yu. It consisted of three volumes and covered the history of tea from its growth to its making and drinking. Some say the book inspired the Buddhist priests to create the Japanese tea ceremony. This book helped popularize the art of tea drinking, not only across China but also Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia. It then spread throughout the rest of the world.
The first mention of tea beyond the borders of China and Japan is thought to have been by the Arabs, in 850 A.D.
And while the earliest references to tea, beyond the borders of the Orient, began to filter back to Europe, no one seemed to know how to prepare it. One reference suggests that the leaves be boiled, salted, buttered and eaten! At first, this seemed absolutely ridiculous – until I read, in a book called “The Top International Tea Recipes” (by Mary Ward, published by Lifetime Books, Inc.,) that “Brick tea was the very earliest method of processing tea in China. It is made by steaming the tea leaves and then pressing them into a brick mold. A chunk of the brick was broken off and tossed into a big pot of boiling water, and cooked like a stew with additional ingredients. The oldest tea recipes call for onions, garlic and salt. Tea was originally more of a soup than a beverage. The Tibetan style of tea to this day still uses a similar recipe. Pu-erh and Tribute tea from China are still made and sold by the brick. As time passed, the soup evolved into a sweet mixture rather than salty, with sugar, spices, and fruits mixed into the brew. The North Indian Chai is the modern day descendant of this recipe. Bricks were actually minted and used as money, for buying horses or whatever…”
Around 1400 A.D., the method of steeping tea came into fashion and before much longer, the teapot was invented. Again, according to Mary Ward’s “The TOP INTERNATIONAL TEA RECIPES”, “The Chinese invented a very special way of steeping tea, using tiny fist-size teapots and tiny cups that held barely an ounce of tea at a time…this method in mainland China is referred to as ‘Gong-fu-cha,’ meaning ‘hard-work-tea’”. In Taiwan, writes Ward, it is the absolute rage and is called “Lau-ren-cha’, which means “old men’s tea”. This is because before it became fashionable, not too many years ago, the only people who brewed tea this way were old men, usually at night, out of doors on quiet city back streets.
The first European credited to having personally encounter tea and write about it was a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Father Jasper de Cruz, in 1560. It was as a missionary that Father de Cruz first tasted tea. The Portuguese developed a trade route by which they shipped their tea to Lisbon and then Dutch ships transported it to France, Holland and the Baltic countries.
Though, tea is indigenous to both India and China each culture claims to have invented it.
Whichever legend you choose to believe, tea was first introduced to Europe when Elizabeth I was Queen. (In 1600, Queen Elizabeth, who wanted exotic luxuries, founded the East India Company, with the intention of obtaining fine fabrics, spices, herbs and other riches from the East).
Tea drinking soon became fashionable in the Dutch Capital, The Hague, (Holland, at that time, was politically affiliated with the Portuguese). In the beginning, tea was very expensive – ergo, it was only for the wealthy. But as the import of tea increased, prices fell . In the beginning, tea was only available to the public in apothecaries, along with rare spices such as ginger, and sugar. But by the late 1600s, it was available in ordinary food shops throughout the Netherlands.
Gradually, tea became a way of life throughout Europe. In the late 1600s, Dutch inns began providing the first restaurant service of tea. It remained popular in France, however, for only about 50 years being replace by wine, chocolate and exotic coffees.
Tea was first introduced to England between 1652 and 1654 and quickly became popular enough to replace ale as the national drink of England.
In 1657, the first public tea sale was held in England. In 1660, Samuel Pepys tried his first cup of tea and wrote about it.
As had happened in Holland, it took the nobility to provide a stamp of approval allowing for its acceptance. One begins to get a glimpse of how these things come about—King Charles II, while in exile had married the Portuguene Infanta Catherine de Braganza. In addition, Charles had grown up in the Dutch capital. As a result, both Charles and his bride were tea drinkers. Enthusiasm for tea spread across England just as it had earlier throughout France and Holland.
Tea merchants claimed it to be the cure-all for everything, from migraine to gallstones. And before you say pooh-pooh, Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, in their fascinating book, “HONEY, MUD, MAGGOTS, AND OTHER MEDICAL MARVELS” note that “…if your great-aunt ever suggested placing a brewed tea bag on your eye to treat a sty, she was probably right, black teas have been found to contain active antibiotics. The Chinese and Japanese have long recommended green tea for many ills, and recent research has shown that it may indeed have some anticancer activity. Almost certainly it protects teeth from decay. The Chinese have an old saying, ‘When you eat a sweet, drink green tea’…”
Back in Europe, however, it wasn’t long before the British adopted the custom of afternoon tea, which was expanded to include little sandwiches, pates, toasted bread with jams, and British pastries such as crumpets, with Scottish scones. Afternoon tea is believed to have been the inspiration of Anna, the Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861) who experienced a sinking feeling in the late afternoon and began inviting friends to join her for an additional afternoon meal at five o’clock in her rooms at Belvoir Castle.
Another European nation, which adopted tea drinking on a grand scale, was Russia, although tea consumption did not become widespread in Russia until the 19th Century. Tannahill explains that this came about, “when the opening of five Chinese ports to Russia, the cutting of the Suez Canal, the development of Russia’s merchant marine, and the opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway all combined to ease the trade situation with the East and make tea so cheap that almost everyone could drink it..”
The Russian interest in tea began as early as 1618 when the Chinese embassy in Moscow presented several chests of tea to Czar Alexis.
Russians are believed to have been the first people to add lemon to their tea, presumably to mask the flavor of the tea leaves, which had been en route for months; the trip by camel caravans was 11,000 miles long and took over 16 months to complete. They undoubtedly picked up a lot of dust along the way. Also, because the trade route was dangerous and supplies unsteady, Russian tea merchants blended the varying incoming tea cargoes, selling a blend rather than a single tea form. It was usually a combination of China and Indian black tea. With the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1900, the overland caravans were abandoned.
Russians like their tea very sweet, often adding honey and jam and even lemons studded with cloves. Tea, along with vodka, is the national drink of Russians today.
Tannahill observes that, “if roast beef symbolized the English meal, and pasta the Italian, the gastronomic emblem of Russia came to be the samovar, the charcoal-heated bain marie with a teapot on top which keeps the tea always ready.” (The samovar was adopted from the Tibetan ‘hot pot’ and is a combination bubbling hot water heater and teapot. It can run all day and serve up to 40 cups of tea at a time. Guests sipped their tea from glasses in silver holders, similar to Turkish coffee cups).
In 1675, Charles II forbade the sale of tea, coffee, chocolate, and sherbet from private houses, in an effort to suppressed sedition and intrigue. However, this act was so unpopular, it never became law; six days later, Charles repeated the proclamation Act XII imposing duty on the sale of such beverages, requiring coffee house keepers to have licenses—this too proved impossible to enforce.
Tea did not become available to the English colonists in Boston until 1670 and another twenty years passed before it became available for sale. Tea Gardens, by then a custom in England, were started up in New York City (which, as a former Dutch colony, was already aware of tea).
By 1720, tea was a generally accepted staple of trade between the new colonies and Great Britain. Colonial women especially liked it. But, as tea was heavily taxed, even this early in history, tea was smuggled into the colonies by American merchants who also adopted herbal teas from the Indians. As every American man and woman should know, taxation continued and increased; the colonists were taxed on everything from newspapers to marriage licenses. The colonists rebelled against the higher taxes, which led, in turn, to even higher taxes as punishment for the rebellion. Among the higher taxes was a tea tax. The colonists continued to rebel, openly purchasing imported tea, mostly Dutch. England was counting on success, knowing that the American women loved tea. It was a big mistake. Throughout the colonies, women pledged publicly at meetings and in newspapers not to drink English sold tea –
All of which led, in 1767, to the Boston Tea Party. The men of Boston dressed up as Indians and threw hundreds of pounds of tea into the harbor. England retaliated by closing the Port of Boston and occupying the city with royal troops. The Boston Tea Party was one of the events leading up to the Revolutionary War.
And, probably because of the Boston Tea Party, tea didn’t enjoy the same popularity in the United States as it did in many other parts of the world, until the 1900s. Americans have traditionally been more coffee drinkers than tea drinkers, and we don’t do “high tea” the way Europeans do.
The first iced tea drink was introduced at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904; a tea plantation owner planned to serve hot tea samples. But when a heat wave hit, no one wanted hot tea. The plantation owner dumped a load of ice into the brewed tea and served the first “iced tea”. It was a big hit.
A few years later, Thomas Sullivan of New York came up with the idea of “bagged” tea.
Meanwhile, tea managed to incorporate itself into our speech and expressions. Christine Ammer explains a few of these in her book “FRUITCAKES & COUCH POTATOES”. Something that is “not my cup of tea” dates from the early 19th century. From around the same period of time, we also adopted the expression “not for all the tea in China” meaning not for any price, while a tempest in a teapot meant a lot to do about nothing.
What kind of tea should you drink? Well, you have a lot to choose from.
A quick glance on my own pantry shelves shows about 20 boxes of different kinds, but for ice tea, passion fruit is my favorite. You will also find some Earl Grey and green teas (which my dermatologist swears is great for your overall health—you can even buy green tea capsules. Green tea, however, makes up only 10% of the World’s produced tea. It should be noted that herbal teas don’t actually contain any true tea leaves. Herbal or medicinal teas are made from flowers, berries, seeds, leaves and roots of many different plants.
Here in the United States, over 90% of the tea we consume is black tea. Popular black teas include English Breakfast, Darjeeling (a blend of Himalayan teas with a flowery bouquet) and Orange Pekoe, which is a blend of Ceylon teas. Oolong tea, which is popular in China, is a cross between black and green tea in both color and taste.
If you would like to know more, there are numerous excellent Web Sites on the Internet – for openers, go to http://www.google.com and enter “tea”.
Tea knows no boundaries. It is available everywhere and within the reach of everyone, costing just pennies per cup and requiring only hot water and the patience to linger a few minutes while the leaves impart their singular flavor. Next to water, tea is the world’s most consumed beverage….”
Studies indicate that tea’s singular alchemy of caffeine, essential oils, and polyphenols, those substances often mistakenly referred to as tannins, aid digestion, foster healthy blood, and may even combat cancer.
While you never hear such claims being made about coffee, we continue to make a pot of coffee first thing in the morning!
Happy Cooking whichever you are brewing today!