Ahh, a nice cup of tea. What could be more soothing than gentle perfumed steam rising from a tasteful china cup to warm you on a rainy day or accompany a good book? It’s almost hard to imagine the turmoil that went into making it.
You can’t make a cup of tea without something reaching boiling point.
Tea originally came from China. I point out this ‘duh’ fact because there are a number of famous tea growing regions in the world, like India, Nepal, and Japan. In fact, today, almost every continent has it’s own tea growing regions. But it wasn’t always like that. There are some original growing regions in India, Myanmar, and Tibet, but most of it is in China.
It started, most likely, as a medicinal drink in the Shang Dynasty in the second millennium BC (I never cease to be amazed by how friggin old China is!). From there, it moved to Sichuan province, where people began to boil it and drink it for fun, subtracting the other medicinal plants.
The history of tea in China is fascinating. Tea in China today is fascinating. Maybe one day, I’ll tell you guys about the TWO STORY TEA MALL in Shenzhen that I visited. But this post is about tea in Georgian England, and to get there before I’m old and grey, I’m afraid I’ll have to skip ahead…and almost all of Asia.
Tea is mentioned in passing by Marco Polo in the 1200s, the Portuguese got into it through their Chinese colonial city of Macau, the Dutch East India Company brought the first crate of green tea leaves to Amsterdam in the early 17th century, the French had it in the 1630s, and in the 1650s tea was appearing in British coffeehouses, where it spread to the colonies and beyond. In 1662, King Charles I married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, bringing the drink to court.
Now, things start getting crazy.
Tea basically exploded. At first, it was expensive and had to be procured from Dutch smugglers. But then the British East India Company got involved, making things more affordable to the British. By 1700, tea was in grocery stores, and women were getting in on the craze, too. Then they started adding milk and sugar to it. A lot of sugar. The popularity of tea from China and sugar from the Caribbean (which was facilitated by the slave trade, let’s not forget) basically fuelled Britain’s economy and contributed heavily to the global power that Britain was at this time. Then a fungus hit coffee growing regions, dropping popularity of coffee and boosting that of tea, and by 1750, tea was the national drink.
At first, green tea was the most popular (yes, with milk added), then black tea gradually started gaining more popularity, and has stayed the most drunk type of tea, even to today.
Shit starts to get really fucked up in the 1800s, which is after the period I’m talking about, so here endeth the lesson. If you want to know more, look up the Opium Wars and, if you’re not American, the Boston Tea Party (if you are American, also look it up. There’s a good chance that the history you learned in school was wrong.)
How it was made and served
The making and serving of the tea was terribly technical and actually bears some resemblance to the way tea is served in China.
So here, is the step-by-step procedure, if you’re planning to have a historically accurate pot of tea.
First, choose a tea pot big enough to serve your guests. If you have four teacups to fill, the pot should hold six teacups worth; one cup per guest, plus half again.
Not mugs. Cups. Don’t embarrass yourself.
Boil the water, and while it’s cooking, presumably in a brick fireplace, add enough tea for each person, at one teaspoon per teacup, plus half again. (Fun fact, pound for pound, tea has more caffeine than coffee. The reason it’s considered a milder drink is because the serving size is smaller. Traditionally, tea is measured in teaspoons and coffee in tablespoons, which are three times bigger.)
Cover the leaves in boiling water and fill the pot one third of the way. Let it stand for fifteen minutes.
While it’s steeping (dear god, it’s gonna be strong and bitter), pour some boiling water into the cups. That’s the part the Chinese still do.
When the tea leaves are done, fill the pot with boiling water, dump the water out of the cups, and serve two-thirds of the the tea (that’s important) into the still-warm cups. Pass around cream and sugar to each guest’s taste.
You leave one-third of the water in the pot so that the leaves will continue to steep.
Typically, each guest will have three cups each, so you’ll need to rebrew the leaves. Rinse the cups and fill the pot up again with boiling water. Serve immediately with cream and sugar.
For the final round, you rinse the cups again, fill the pot only two-thirds full, and serve the entirety of the remaining tea. And that’s how you keep the strength of flavour the whole way through. Neat, huh?
Now, if you like a weaker tea, use only enough water and tea per guest and don’t leave the leaves sitting in the tincture (the super concentrated tea).
Now, the afternoon tea that we all know and love wasn’t really a thing yet, in the time period of my books, but close. It was mostly drunk medicinally to relieve digestive issues, so it was something you had after a meal, with a meal, or in the late afternoon or evening. It was traditionally served with simple fare, such a bread and butter, but you know fancy people, they’ll find an excuse for cakes and biscuits.
And if you wanna get really fancy, you’ll want to invest in a real wooden tea caddy (yes, they still make them), and find a tea brick, which is how it was transported before. Loose leaf is susceptible to dampness such as is found on oceangoing vessels, but also bugs, and has a tendency to take on the smell of what’s packed with it. Tea bricks (pressed and compacted leaves) are more water resistant and generally travel better. But you’ll have to break chunks off and crumble them up. Please don’t shave them, that’s no better than tea bags.
On the brick note, bringing it back to the Boston Tea Party for a sec: people love depicting all of those guys dumping crates of tea like boxes of sand into Boston Harbour. But they were most likely crates of tea bricks, and those dudes were just frisbee-ing them into the water. And I think that’s a much more fun depiction of history.
Tea and Plain Speaking
There’s a fun little chapter in Golden, where Johanne discusses the prospect of marriage with a matriarch of another branch of her family. If you want to read a bit of it, or sample the tea inspired by it, visit The Forest Witch’s tea blend, Johanne.