We all know it. We all have, at one time or another, enjoyed the beverage. There are yards of shelves in supermarkets dedicated to it. And yet, when we walk past it or even choose a variety, we probably don’t even think about it any more than the next pleasant cup of it in a cozy context.
Tea is a plant that has had great historical impact on the world as it is now. And I’m not talking tisane, the variant that is from fruit, berries, bark, mosses, lichen, or herbs. Those had their impact, too, unfortunately more often than not as proof in witch trials. Or they have been agents of healing for anybody dealing in the field of medicine – including our own mothers or ourselves. Think fennel for upset stomachs or licorice to soothe a sore throat.
Green tea was the first load of tea that reached Europe in the early 1600s, imported by the Dutch East India Company. In Britain, Catherine of Braganza, King Charles IIs Portuguese wife, introduced tea at court, where it turned into a fad and soon reached wider popularity. Black tea should become more rampant than green tea, and it was drunk with milk and sugar. Due to taxes, it was only affordable to the better-off at first, but smugglers made the beverage less and less expensive. In order to get rid of the smuggling business, Britain removed the tax in 1785. If they had done so earlier – who knows?! There wouldn’t have been the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773, for sure. And when the British had placed an embargo on the Netherlands, Dutch importers simply moved to Northern Germany to do business from there; which again caused the rise of Northern German tea culture in the literary salons and society in general.
This caused a deficit in the British government’s tax income. As China decreed to be paid for tea in coin only, by now, but had banned the sale of foreign products in return, the British tried to retrieve their tea monies in selling opium to the people. China’s attempt to stop the opium sales led to the Opium Wars. At the same time, in order to break the Chinese tea monopoly, the British introduced the plant to India, where as of 1856 Darjeeling tea began to be produced. From there, it spread to Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon.
To this day, High Tea, a social occasion in the late afternoon, is still observed in the Commonwealth. And I find that here, in the nation that split from her mother country because of taxation without representation of her needs, the tradition that – back in my youth and childhood – had the reputation of a specific stuffiness regains popularity. Maybe because drinking tea involves spending time – which in a culture of non-stop-rushing counters the flow. Maybe because high tea and its accoutrements are simply pleasurable and a cultured form of meeting for conversation. Pretty much the more sophisticated version of a German Kaffeeklatsch, which makes no pretenses at to its kind of conversation, plain “gossip”.
The other day I picked up some fun tea varieties at a supermarket. They are tisanes, which I prefer to tea because they are caffeine-free. One is called “Cranberry Vanilla Wonderland”; it wouldn’t sound half as interesting if it stated rooibos and hibiscus tea with natural flavoring ingredients, would it? The other one is called “Sugar Cookie Sleigh Ride”, whatever that implies; milk thistle and roasted barley would probably not entice anybody to buy this beverage. So, it is still marketing that sells the concept rather than the ingredients. Similar as that Dutch doctor who prescribed 200 cups of tea per day to restore his patients’ health in the beginning days of tea in Europe. He was paid by the Dutch East India Company, as it turned out. I’m still trying to figure whether my tisane is co-sponsored by a brand for sugar cookies or one for sleigh rides.