The travels and travails of a tealeaf

To some January is National Tea Month; to others every month is Tea Month. Tea was first drunk sometime before 1000 BC in Asia, and has become the world’s most popular beverage after water. It made it to Europe only with the voyages of Portugal’s Age of Discovery in the 1500s and though the leaf made it to Britain with the wife of Charles II, it didn’t become a popular drink for another hundred years.

Great sailing vessels known as tea clippers brought the tea to the drawing rooms of the middle and upper classes. The most famous example, the museum ship Cutty Sark moored in London’s Greenwich, could do the trip from China in 120 days. That’s a long time to wait for a cup of fresh tea.

The tea clippers used the same trade winds that had carried Vasco da Gama around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean to India. Their death knell was the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, pushing the tea trade onto steam ships. At a time when tea was still a seasonal product great prestige followed the ship that brought the first batch of the year from China. Using the shorter route through the Suez Canal unavailable to rigged shipping, it was the steam ships that claimed this prestige.

Tea can grow just about anywhere that a normal person would choose to live (including England and Wales). The young shoots of the plant are picked and quickly dried. The different types of tea (white, yellow, green, oolong, black) all come from the same plant. They differ through the heating process the drying leaves undergo, releasing the tannins that give teas their distinctive colours and flavours.

Both the words tea and chai come to us from Chinese dialects, pointing to the original source of the beverage. One early tale has it that the Emperor Shennong was responsible for the drink’s discovery. Purifying a bowl of water by boiling, a leaf from a nearby plant floated down into it. Tired from his invention of agriculture and medicine, the emperor drank the unholy mixture rather than starting again. We can only imagine he rather liked the taste.
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