There is a strong worldwide perception that tea is an English drink. According to the UK Tea Council – as a nation we drink approximately 165 million cups of tea every day, coming in just behind the Irish Republic. Why has tea become so embedded in British culture when it is really an oriental drink? Have we got so used to it being part of our lives here that we no longer ‘see’ tea for what it is – the growing camellia sinensis plant that has well over a 1,000 different varieties around the world. (Sinensis really means ‘of China or of Chinese origin)
Over 96 % of tea consumed in the UK is sold in tea bags. Supermarket shelves are packed with assorted tea bag brands. The terms to describe them include ‘lively’ and ‘calming’, and our expectation is that they will taste the same every single time we drink them. And yet the flavour and characteristics of origin teas (teas that come from a particular area, eg Assam) are influenced by the soil in which they are grown, the height above sea level and the climatic conditions, very much in the same way as wine. Once you have tried a delicate first or second flush Darjeeling your palate will be longing for more.
Over the past 10 to 15 years there has been a resurgence of interest in high quality origin and blended teas. At the same time going out for tea as a special occasion has become increasingly fashionable. Even now both tea drinking and the meal taken in the afternoon, have a whisper of formal manners and good behaviour that has passed down the generations.
In the 18th century tea drinking was a way to demonstrate ‘genteelness’ within the growing urban ‘middling’ classes, whose new wealth was derived from the industrial revolution that changed the face of Great Britain. Your skills in serving and taking tea showed that you knew how to behave in polite society, whilst the quality of your tea paraphernalia demonstrated your wealth. Think of all those family portraits in art galleries of a family drinking tea – an immediate indicator of how fashionable and rich they were.
Make sure when you next go out to tea you have your photograph taken as you preside over a tea table piled high with delicate food and a delicious cup of tea – tell the world you know and participate in the magic of the English style tea party!
I am running an “Introduction to Popular English Teas” course through CityLit this year. If you would like to find out more have a look at their website, or drop me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org. The CityLIt website will be able to let you know if there is still availability.