Did you know that tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world (besides water)? Nope—I didn’t either. Even though I write novels set in tea-centric England, I confess I am a tea novice and drink more coffee than tea (shhh! :)). But I do enjoy drinking tea in comfortable solitude now and then, or at social gatherings. And lately I’ve been learning more about this quintessentially British beverage.
At the national Jane Austen Society conference in October, I took a class about teas available in Jane Austen’s time (Bohea, Hyson, Gunpowder, etc.) and had the opportunity to mix my own blends, adding things like cinnamon, hibiscus, marigold, nettle, or rose petals to various black or green tea leaves.
After that, I learned even more at an afternoon tea I attended with a few friends and members of my local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America. There, we were enlightened and entertained by British author and tea historian Jane Pettigrew (I even love her name) who gave a fascinating talk. She is the author of many books, including A Social History of Tea, which I bought that day. I could have listened to her for hours. If you are a tea lover, I recommend her books or hearing her speak if you have the chance.
Recently, I’ve also been reading a book by Amy Boucher Pye, who grew up not far from where I live in Minnesota, but is now a London vicar’s wife. Her book is called Finding Myself in Britian. As a lover of all-things-British, I’m enjoying reading about the differences in cultures, traditions, vocabulary, etc. between Americans and Brits, and in particular, the chapter devoted to tea. If you are a fellow Anglophile, you’ll want to read Amy’s book for yourself.
So, from these three sources, here are some things I’ve learned about tea in no particular order. I found them interesting and thought you might, too.
British people mean different things when they say “tea,” referring to several different kinds of occasions:
High tea: It isn’t what you think it is. Traditionally speaking, high tea was a heavy, working class evening meal.
Afternoon tea: Tea and a small piece of cake around 4:00 or 5:00. The 7th Duchess of Bedford is often credited with originating the practice in the 1830s as an afternoon pick-me-up to tide her over until a late dinner.
Cream tea: A pot of tea, 2 scones, clotted cream & jam. (I had this in Devonshire last year. Yum!)
Builder’s tea: The tradition of workmen drinking sweet, hot tea on their breaks and expecting it to be offered to them if they’re working in your home.
Morning cuppa: The self-evident cup of tea to start your day.
In The Regency era and earlier, tea was most often served after the main meal, or as a special treat when guests visited, not at breakfast or every afternoon as it is now.
Tea was originally enjoyed only by the wealthy. Imported from China and India, tea was heavily taxed, very expensive, and kept under lock and key until it would be brewed at table by the lady of the house. (By Jane Austen’s time, people in all classes began drinking tea.)
Tea was originally stored and served in special porcelain jars, pots, and cups that were imported from China along with the tea, which gave us our word “china,” meaning fine dishes.
All authentic tea comes from the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant. (We get different types of tea through various processing techniques.) Any other drinks made from infused herbs or other ingredients may be tasty, but they are not tea. 🙂
Green or Black, all teas naturally have about the same caffeine content. It is the processing and preparation (water temperature, etc.) that effects how much caffeine is in your cuppa.
There are six types of tea, with different levels of processing and oxidation: black, white, green, yellow, oolong, and dark.
Tea bags were invented not by a Brit, but by a New Yorker! From Amy’s book, “And like many innovations, it came about by mistake. Thomas Sullivan was a tea importer, and one day in the early 1900s he sent out samples of tea in silk bags. Although he intended for his recipients to open the bag and remove the tea leaves, they threw the whole thing into the pot. The tea bag was born….”
Originally, tea bags were viewed with suspicion in Britain but gradually won over our tea-loving cousins across the pond and are now commonly used.
Don’t sadden a Brit by offering teabags and tepid water! Hot water (almost boiling) brings out the taste of the tea leaves. And since the tea needs to steep, it will still be comfortingly hot after a few minutes pass and it’s ready to drink.
And one final quote from Finding Myself in Britain: “Because many people in Britain associate tea with comfort, offering tea to someone becomes an act of hospitality…. [Don’t] underestimate the value of sharing tea with someone going through a difficult time.”
Are you a tea drinker? Have you experienced the comfort and communion of sharing tea with a friend? Let’s all make a point of doing so soon.
Perhaps you would like some tea, as soon as it can be got.”
They both declared they should prefer it to anything.
—Jane Austen, Mansfield Park