A Brief History of Tea Drinking

Although tea drinking has become inextricably linked with Englishness, it was in fact introduced to Europe by the Portuguese and Dutch traders in the early seventeenth century. Tea had reached London by 1658, although it took the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza (a Portuguese princess) to make it wildly fashionable at court.

By the eighteenth century tea had become a national passion, and, even though it was so expensive, was brewed throughout the country. The amount of tea drunk in England grew by a staggering 225 per cent.

Once gentlefolk had drunk the first brew, their servants would make tea for themselves from the used leaves, and then in turn sell the twice-used leaves at the back door. Tea had a great deal to do with improving the national health, too, requiring water to be boiled, and ousting cheap gin (advertised at the time as a good way to get ‘Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence’).


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By the early 1870s, India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were jointly acknowledged as the Empire tea growers.  China never resumed her pre-eminence after the Opium Wars, and Chinese tea became the choice of specialist tea drinkers.

Tea comes from the evergreen bush, Camellia sinensis, and is manufactured into black, green, oolong or white tea, depending on how it is processed. Just like wine, the quality of the leaves depends on when and where they were picked, the climate, the soil conditions and the altitude of the plants. For the tea plant to flourish it needs temperatures between 10-27 °C. Only the top two leaves and a bud are picked from the new growth that the plant puts on every one to two weeks.

How to make the perfect cuppa!

Pour fresh water into an empty limescale-free kettle and bring to the boil, making sure the water does not boil for too long, as the oxygen in the water is needed for the best taste. The longer the kettle boils the less oxygen will remain in the water.

Pour a little boiling water into the teapot and then discard after a good swirl.

When it comes to how much tea to use, follow the rule of  ‘one teaspoon per person and one for the pot’ for loose leaves and pour over the boiled water. Allow the tea to brew for 3 to 5 minutes depending on how strong you like your tea.

The Invention of Afternoon Tea

Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, grew tired of the sinking feeling which afflicted her every afternoon around 4pm, in the long dull space of time between meals. In 1840 she plucked up the courage and asked for a tray of tea, bread & butter and cake to be brought to her room. Once she had formed the habit, she found that she could not break it, so spread it amongst her friends instead. As the century progressed afternoon tea became increasingly elaborate. By the 1880s ladies were changing into long tea gowns for the occasion.

By Edwardian times, the smart hour for afternoon tea was 5pm or later, and what had started as a little hiatus for refreshment had become a full-blown social occasion.

Times have since changed and afternoon tea has suffered a decline since the Second World War.  Life has speeded up so it is not as easy to pause for afternoon tea at 4pm. But tea has not lost its symbolic or emotional status in England.

Afternoon tea is still a graceful event, and brings people together for enjoyment and refreshment.

“Tea! Thou soft, thou sober, sage and venerable liquid, thou female tongue-running, smile-smoothing, heart-opening, wink-tipping cordial, to whose glorious insipidity I owe the happiest moment of my life, let me fall prostrate.”

Colley Cibber

The Lady’s Last Stake, 1708


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