Cultivated for thousands of years in India, tea is now drunk all over the world. The apocryphal story about how the Chinese found tea involves Emperor Shennong’s hygienic belief in boiled water and a few leaves of a plant falling into his cup around the year 2737 B.C. The emperor found the resulting brew refreshing, and soon China had such an obsession with “cha” that a man named Lu Yu, who wrote the definitive Cha Jing, is commemorated by a giant statue in Xi’an. Buddhist monks brought tea from China to Japan a century or so later, where the tea ceremony was developed into a simple but highly formalised ritual that still has a place in Japanese culture today.
It took eight centuries more before tea caught on in the West, introduced by Dutch traders. For a while, tea was all the rage at the French court, with one noblewoman writing that a courtier was known to drink 40 cups each morning. However, tea reached England not through French fashion but through King Charles II’s marriage to Catherine de Braganza, whose Lisbon upbringing included a passion for tea drinking.
Once in England, tea became both a stimulating beverage and a mealtime, the latter when Queen Victoria’s lady-in-waiting Anne, Duchess of Bedford, began having “a sinking feeling in the afternoon,” since lunches were quite spare. She would invite friends in for a pot of tea and some snacks, which often included small sandwiches and cakes. Of course, tea also stimulated famous unrest in the American Colonies, whose resistance to British domination included rejection of a tax on tea that resulted in the Boston Tea Party of 1776, when Colonial insurgents (including Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and silversmith Paul Revere) dumped 342 cases of tea from the decks of East India Company ships into Boston Harbour….. shame on them, what a waste of tea !