THE WONDER OF TEA
We all love a nice cuppa; it’s the quintessential English drink that we’ve enjoyed for centuries – for 350 years, in fact. But of course, tea doesn’t come from the UK, and although we’ve most definitely taken it in as one of our own, its origins date back much further than three and a half centuries.
Legend has it that Chinese emperor Shen Nung was enjoying some refreshing water beneath a tree way, way back in 2737 BC. To ensure that the water wasn’t going to kill off the emperor, his servant boiled it before giving it to him and, so the story goes, as he was boiling the water, some leaves from the tree fell into the pot. The tree was the camellia sinensis, and Shen Nung unwittingly drank the first ever cup of tea.
Who knows just how much of the legend is true, but the fact remains that tea drinking was popular in China thousands of years before the rest of the world had even heard of it. It was so well loved that in the eighth century a writer called Lu Yu wrote a book entirely about it – it was called the Ch’a Ching (Tea Classic). It was at this point that Buddhist monks from Japan who had travelled to China realised that the Japanese people might love tea as much as the Chinese, and they brought the infusion and traditions with them when they went back home.
Despite its popularity in the east, Europe only recognised the greatness of this infusion in the early 1600s. In 1606, a consignment of tea was shipped all the way from China to Holland – the first consignment of its kind although there have been countless since – and before long it was fashionable in Dutch society to take tea. It came at a high price, though, so only the wealthy could afford to drink it. It was most likely this, rather than any real liking for the taste of tea, that led to its sudden and energetic spread throughout the rest of Europe in the years that followed.
Britain, however, still didn’t trust tea. It was something that foreigners liked. It came from far away. It was an infusion and that might be a bad thing. It was thanks to a rather fabulous and far-sighted coffee house owner who had an establishment in Sweeting’s Rents in London that first got people talking about tea. It was 1658, and he ran a newspaper advert that told everyone that ‘tcha alias tee’ would be available at his establishment. It certainly created a buzz, albeit a small one. However, in 1664 things took a major turn in the tea drinking department – Charles II married Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza and she was a proud tea addict. The stuff soon started to be imported by the crateful.
But that’s not to say there weren’t problems. In the seventeenth century, tea was still incredibly pricey. And that was all down to tax. By 1689, the tax was so high that it almost stopped all tea sales completely. It was reduced in 1692 from 25p in the pound to 5p, but that’s not where it ended. Tea tax was forever being changed – even up until the latter part of the twentieth century. As always, high prices and high demand meant that a thriving tea smuggling business soon grew up.
The fact that tea was smuggled into Britain is well known, but did you also know that merchants would get around the fact that they couldn’t buy large amount of tea leaves by mixing what they could get with… additives? Dried sheep dung was particularly popular, although leaves picked from any old trees were often used. To give the tea the right colour, poisonous copper carbonate was also thrown in for good measure. Delicious!
Smuggling came to an abrupt end in 1784. William Pitt the Younger was the new prime minister, and he was also a tea drinker. So one of his first policies when he came to office was to reduce the tax on tea from 119 percent down to a teeny tiny 12.5 percent. Tea was affordable, the smugglers went out of business, and the British enthusiasm for tea has never dwindled since that time. In fact, we’re rather famous for it.
Types of Tea
There are a number of different tea varieties, and each one tastes different to the next. But it’s not all about taste – there are health benefits to think about too when choosing your perfect brew.
- White Tea
White tea is the most natural, least processed of all the different types of tea available. Creating this tea is a truly hands-off process, as the leaves are simply allowed to wither in the sun until they are dry enough to be used.
White tea is considered to be the ‘tea of teas’ in China. It comes from the mountainous Fujian region of China, and the tree is the famous camellia sinensis. It should be drunk ‘pure’ (without milk) to enjoy the taste, and should be made with hot but not boiling water. If you want to, you can add lemon or honey, but it does have a very subtle taste which can easily be masked so don’t go in too heavy handed.
The main benefit found in drinking white tea is that it is full of anti-oxidants. Anti-oxidants stop cell damage, so they’re great as an anti-aging tool. White tea also offers protection against UV light, and keeps skin healthy. Drinking white tea can even give you a reduced risk of cancer and help with cardiovascular disorders. Diabetic people often find that white tea increases insulin secretion and therefore provides relief. And some studies show that it is good for weight loss too.
- Green Tea
Green tea is all about improving brain function. It can aid concentration which is why it is popular with students and those who find themselves working long hours. There are many different varieties of green tea, but they all have similar health benefits.
Green tea started life as a medicine in China. It was a ‘catch-all’ cure because it reduced blood pressure and therefore solved any number of ills. Although it comes from the same tree as white and black tea, the process involved in making green tea is what, apparently, makes it so useful when it comes to health. There is no fermentation process in green tea (unlike black tea) which means that it retains more antioxidants than other types.
Green tea speeds up the metabolism, and the polyphenol that it contains helps burn fat – so it is often used as part of a weight loss plan. It also slows the rise of blood sugar, which greatly aids those with diabetes. As for heart disease, scientists have discovered that green tea keeps blood vessels relaxed, and that means they can cope with big changes in blood pressure, which means that heart has to work a little less hard. Green tea is widely believed to kill cancer cells, it reduces cholesterol and is delays the onset and progress of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. And as a bonus, it can combat the symptoms of depression.
- Black Tea
Black tea is the kind of tea that most of us drink – it’s the stuff that is found in most tea bags, and it is the basis of the nation’s favourites: Darjeeling, English Breakfast and Earl Grey. Black tea has been found to be good for circulation, plus it reduces stress levels by balancing hormones.
Black tea is great for oral health as it reduces the ability for plaque to form on our teeth, as well as restricting the growth of the bacteria that forms cavities. Like other types of teas, black tea contains antioxidants, so is good for the skin and blood pressure. Studies have shown that this ability to lower blood pressure means that those who drink black tea have a lower chance of having a stroke. What’s more, black tea contains a load of phytochemicals which reduce the chances of developing arthritis. It can even keep our digestive systems nice and healthy, and look after our immune system which in turn looks after us.
Where To Buy
There are some fabulous online tea sellers around – here are just some of them.
- Kent & Sussex Tea Company
This family business has over 1,000 different types of tea on offer. Not only do they sell tea, but they are also involved in every aspect of it from beginning to end, so they really are experts when it comes to the nation’s traditional drink. Try some of the more exotic flavours such as banana green tea or blueberry fizz fruit tisane, or stick with tried and tested blends including Earl Grey.
- Bluebird Tea Co
Bluebird Tea Co has been around since 2013, and was set up in order to make people happy. That ethos has stuck with the owners and customers ever since, and it really does what it says it will – buying from Bluebird is a joyous thing. The online shop is packed full of all things tea, from the leaves and bags themselves to mugs, teapots and more. There are also handy recipes and details on how to brew the perfect cuppa.
- Cup Of Tea Ltd
If you are looking for a wide range of high quality teas, Cup Of Tea Ltd is the place to go. All the teas available here are made from only the very finest handpicked leaves, and that makes all the difference. Browse the great selection and if you have any questions about what kind of tea you should get, just ask – they’ll be happy to answer your queries and point you in the right direction.
- Imperial Teas
Not only can you buy some really rather lovely teas from Imperial Teas in Lincoln (through their online shop), but they even make their own. The Earl Grey that is available is made by Imperial Teas themselves, which is a very different and certainly unique way of going about things. Why not try it and see how it measures up?
T2 has just opened up a new shop in Bluewater, but if you’re not local to the shopping centre and you want to try some of their weird and wonderful flavours, you can buy them online and enjoy next day delivery on most products. Speaking of the products, there are some fabulous flavours to choose from. They include crème brûlée, creamy choc chai, shimmer punch and lemon sorbet to name just a few. If you’re not sure what to buy, go to the website and use the handy tea finder tool which will give you a better idea of what will work for you.