Thursday, 28 May 2009

Who's For Tea?

Tea's proper use is to amuse the idle and relax the
studious, to dilute the full meal of those who cannot use
exercise and will not use abstinence.

Samuel Johnson 1709 - 1764

The tea we drink and know so well is actually a camellia,
Camellia sinensis. First discovered as a tea, or, dried
leaf tip that could be added to boiling water as a drink.

Its discovery was due to the ancient Chinese culture of
herbal medicine and is traditionally attributed to Shen
Nong, said to have lived about 2.500 years ago.

Teas origin was as a medicinal herb, used to clear the mind
and was promptly adopted by scholars and Buddhist monks
during meditation.

Although tea had been widely prepared as a drink throughout
China for over 2000 years, we must remember that China, to
the Europeans was totally unknown, except for very minor
reports and references in books, i.e. from a Persian
traveller in 1559 who mentions tea as a wonderful antidote
to fever, headache and stomach ache!

It was, however, the Dutch who first imported tea into
Europe in 1610 as a purely medicinal drink, but by 1637,
tea was being imported into Holland as a hot drink with an
increasing popularity. Holland, at this time, was the tea
drinking country, not England.

Tea was drunk in England, on a small scale, however, tea
arrived in England with a new vigor via the restoration of
the monarchy in 1660, with the return to England of Charles
ll, who had lived in exile among the tea drinking Dutch.

But it was via Portugal that tea drinking in England
received its real boost. The Portuguese had, throughout the
15th century been Europes leading sea power, with a vast
and adventurous merchant fleet trading between Lisbon,
India and the southern Chinese port of Canton. Portugal had
been the very first to encounter tea having a virtual
control of trade to Asia until about 1600.

Portugal had been the first foreign power to be granted a
trading concession by the Imperial Chinese government, with
imported goods, hardly known in Europe, including silks,
porcelain, lacquer ware and tea, establishing Lisbon as an
important and wealthy city.

By the middle of the 17th century, tea was the drink of
choice at the Portuguese court.

In 1661 a political union was established between England
and Portugal and as was the style of the day, the political
union was followed by a Royal marriage between England and
Portugal, which symbolized the union between the two
kingdoms.

In 1662 Princess Catherine of Braganza was sent to England
to be the Royal bride of Charles ll. Catherine, now Queen
of England, further promoted tea at the English court. The
new Queens passion for tea firmly established tea drinking
at court, which very quickly spread throughout high society.

Today, tea is an inexpensive drink enjoyed by anyone who
wishes to drink it, but it was not always so. Tea in the
17th and 18th century was very expensive, indeed, a luxury
drink enjoyed only by the wealthy classes. We can still see
preserved posters from Thomas Garways London tea and coffee
shop, with tea priced at 16 to 60 shillings a pound! And in
1664 a poster, advertising tea at 4Pounds and 5/- shillings
for a little over two pound weight. In 1664 this was a vast
amount of money, well beyond the purse of the average
family.

By the early 18th century, the fashion for tea was gaining
new ground and the price for standard grade tea had dropped
to about 12 - 14 shillings a pound, a sum of money equal to
the average weekly income of a master craftsman at the time.

With tea being a privilege of the rich, it soon became
something to show-off about and the tea ceremony began to
develop. This allowed the host to give a lavish display of
wealth and status, in the 18th century, your wealth and
social standing was something to display and the grander
the display, the better.

The tea table became a social centre and to extend
hospitality to guests could be an expensive exercise, we
find a London magazine of 1744 reporting that it could cost
more to maintain a fashionable tea table than to keep two
children and a nurse!

Both English and Continental porcelain makers and silver
smiths vied with each other to produce the most elegant tea
wares for the fashionable tea table.

Fine furniture makers, produced beautiful tea table
furniture and tea caddies, where the lady of the house
could safely lock the tea away from servants with sticky
fingers! In fact, it was a perquisite, or privilege of the
senior footman to salvage the tealeaves from the tea pot,
dry them in the sunlight and reuse them for himself, or,
even sell them.

In the 18th century, tea was usually served, mid afternoon,
after dinner, which was served in the early afternoon. The
lady of the house presided over the ritual of the tea
table, which by now had become almost a ceremony, with
rules of etiquette specific to taking tea. By example,
there is a Thomas Rawlinson cartoon; named, The French
Visitors, The Frenchmen are seen, cross legged and red in
the face, obviously, desperate to relieve themselves,
written in the balloon shape coming from their mouths is,
Please, Madam, no more tea!! The joke, in 18th century
terms, was that they did not know the tea table etiquette
which required a guest to place his / her spoon in the tea
cup to indicate to the hostess, no more, thank you.

This generous hostess had kept refilling the French
visitors cups and they, too polite to say, no more, thank
you.

As the 18th century began to fade into the early 19th
century, tea, now being grown by the British in India and
Ceylon, became less and less expensive, eventually to
become a staple of the poorer classes. Of particular
benefit, although not understood at the time was the fact
the drinking water was now being boiled, so that the many
diseases spread by contaminated drinking water began to
decline.

The tea, that we know today, is a very inexpensive drink,
enjoyed by millions, the elegant ritual of the tea table,
now reduced to a mug and a tea bag.


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