The British are, as a string of foreign visitors have noted, obsessed with tea. It’s the cure for any misfortune, and it’s a great way to celebrate something good happening. It can be enjoyed with breakfast, with lunch, or during the afternoon – and it comes in hundreds of varieties – but just a few are really enjoyed on these shores.
Tea has been around for thousands of years, existing first as a medical beverage in China. It was thought to lend vitality to the five vital organs. Its medicinal properties are still recognised (albiet with varying degrees of enthusiasm) today. The drink exploded in popularity from the fourth to eighth centuries. During this period of expansion, tea became a recreational drink rather than a simple medical one; plantations were established across china, and high-quality drinking vessels became a mark of wealth and influence. Only young women were permitted to cultivate and farm the tea and handle the leaves, and they were forced to adhere to a strict diet lest the odour of their fingers contaminate the crop.
In the early part of the 17th century, tea was introduced to Europe – first by Portuguese monks, and then by the Dutch. The drink slowly became more popular throughout the century, but wouldn’t arrive on British shores until 1662, with the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza, a native of Portugal. The princess had a taste for tea, and brought it with her as part of her dowry. She began to serve the drink at court to her friends, and within a few months all of London had heard of her habits.
The aristocracy, seeking to be emulate the royal family, began to look for tea for themselves. Only those with sizeable cash reserves could afford to import this luxury item, with just a pound of the stuff costing more than a month’s wages for the average common labourer. In this sense, the commodity was something like as rare as precious gemstones are today – and thus showing that you were wealthy enough to drink such a valuable commodity was a demonstration of just how upper-class you were.
Afternoon tea is a special British instituted, whose invention is credited to the seventh duchess of Bedford, Anna. She got bored of waiting for her evening meal, and thus had her maid bring a pot of tea to her room. She invited her friends around, and the custom soon spread – or so the theory goes.
Though we might think of black tea as an enjoyable afternoon beverage, its significance historically went far beyond that. Its longevity made it a valuable and tradeable commodity that would spread across the world. The East India Company dominated trade throughout the world right up until the early 19th century, when parliament declared trade routes open for competition. By this point, the British had claimed India, Hong Kong and Singapore as colonies. Though they’ve since been declared independent again, the effects of this period in history are still felt today.
Where to enjoy tea?
If you’re looking to enjoy a spot of afternoon tea, then you’ll be pleased to note that the country is absolutely bristling with suitable locations. For many, the table in the kitchen is likely to serve well, but if you might equally venture up to somewhere a little more scenic. Thames river cruises run frequently through the nation’s capital, and provide an excellent locale to enjoy the nation’s favourite brewed beverage. If you’re looking to indulge in a Thames afternoon tea cruise, then the time has never been riper!
For thousands of years, the only sort of tea available in china was green. It was only during the 17th century, as trade routes grew longer, than the need for a hardier variety of tea was called for. Lots were beginning to spoil shortly after, or even before, they ultimately reached their destinations, and thus Chinese tea growers had to seek new and more efficient way of preserving their stock. The answer came in the form of a special fermentation process, whose results we would recognise today as black tea. This sort of tea kept its flavour for longer, and was thus able to survive lengthy export journeys along the Silk Road. What’s more, it would develop a unique flavour all of its own that western palates would quickly warm to – so much so that green tea is still considered exotic in the west, even after the problems of slow transportation have been eradicated.