Picture courtesy of the Daily Mail
including information taken(in my own words) from an article by
Tony Rennell in same newspaper
In the fourth week of snow and ice and sub-zero temperatures my thoughts turn to the pleasing and warming effect of a cup of tea. Also reminding myself that in hot weather hot tea is the most thirst quenching drink I know and cooling to the body too.
Tea is something I grew up taking for granted, but not so since I have learned a little of the history of how tea was first brought to England. It would be far too much information to relate here but thought I would try and give a few snippets.
Apparently in the UK alone we drink 150 million cups or mugs of the liquid a day. We have a Scotsman called Robert Fortune to thank for this. Fortune was a seeker of the exotic, an explorer and student of plants just like his Victorian contemporary and fellow botanist Charles Darwin. As Darwin went on to try and discover the key to life (it is not my intention here to challenge that fact) we can thank Fortune for bringing us this pleasurable and relaxing nectar.
Camellia sinensis, tea, was his favourite species and the closely guarded secrets of its origins where what he sought, found and then stole eventually benefiting us all (well that is as long as one likes tea!)
According to Sarah Rose in her new book he pulled off the greatest theft of trade secrets in the history of mankind. At this time all tea was grown in China, its sole country of origin, which had a monopoly on the trade. Apparently for two centuries this was not an issue. The Chinese picked the tea, roasted it, blended it, kept the best of the crop for themselves and sold on the dregs of their Pekoes and Souchongs at a handsome markup. The British lapped it up even though it was at this time an inferior brew that they were getting.
To supply the demand the London based East India Company exchanged the Opium grown on its plantations in India with tea from China. This began to fail when China began to grow its own Opium. The British response was to begin trying to grow its own tea in India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, which resembled the tea growing areas in China. However this was much more difficult than expected as for centuries the Chinese had zealously guarded their secrets of its cultivation. Early attempts to grow tea in India were a disaster. The directors of the East India Company knew they had to get someone into the heart of the tea growing areas in China to learn the secrets and to get hold of the right seeds.
They contacted Fortune and sent him to China travelling in disguise.He was already acquainted with China having been over there for a Royal Horticultural Society Expedition where he returned with various flowers that are still to this day adorning flower beds here.
On his return journey he shaved his head, wore a pigtail and Mandarin clothes and managed to pass himself off as a Chinaman. He even sipped tea the Chinese way from a porcelain bowl without milk and sugar and called himself Sing-Wa. He eventually managed to get himself deep into tea growing country. The first important fact he discovered was that Green tea and Black tea were the same plant but differently processed, one fermented the other not. He also found that the Green tea intended for Britain had a dye added (a form of Cyanide) as the Chinese thought the British wanted a much deeper colour so people were in effect being poisoned.
When he eventually managed to acquire all the plants he needed he had them meticulously shipped to India but on the journey an official broke the seals to take a look and they ended up going rotten. Fortunatley Fortune was continuing with his exploits in China and began an even more arduous journey that was frought with dangers. The area was beset with Warlords and peasant uprisings against the Emperor. However he did not give up. It was in one of the local temples that the Monks introduced him to more tea secrets. The importance of water on the boil but not over-boiling, and using pre-warmed cups and larger leaves for better flavour.
Finally he brought all his years of gardening experience to bear on the shipping of the seeds to India. He also brought away Jasmine and Bergamot plants (which the Chinese used for flavouring), as well as ovens, woks and spatulas and special rolling tables and began a small tea industry in India.
According to Sarah Rose, India's Himalayan tea industry would outstrip China's in both quality, volume and price. As a result tea was no longer just a drink for the rich.
If you want to read the complete and fascinating history behind these few lines then the book to read is:
FOR ALL THE TEA IN CHINA: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World's Favourite Drink by Sarah Rose.
In closing just a few hints on making a perfect cup of tea, first taught to me by my Grandmother.
The water should be freshly drawn each time (to do with oxygen) and the kettle must be properly boiling. Warm the teapot beforehand and use a good loose tea (I use Assam) one teaspoon per person. I was always taught to put the milk in first and not too much. Sugar is added to taste at the end.
For your information, Black tea which is Britain's favourite brew, gets it's flavour and colour from a natural oxidation process following the initial drying and rolling of the leaves. Green tea is made from leaves which are heated after picking to destroy the enzymes that cause oxidation, then rolled to release their flavour.
Oolong comes from China and Taiwan, and is a cross between Green and Black and gives a taste somewhere between the two.
White tea is the world's rarest. It is made from the buds and young leaves of a special tea plant variety grown in the Fujian province of China and can only be picked for just a few weeks of the year. Reported to be much better for one than Green tea. (I don't know, I have never tasted it)