Before there was oil there was tea. The original “black gold” has been the social fuel of the British Empire since the 17th century. It filled the coffers of the East Indian Tea Company, the treasury of the British Empire, started wars, calmed nerves and helped generations through stressful situations. In fact, tea by far exceeds the popularity of coffee in most Middle Eastern countries.
British merchants devised processing methods for “black tea”(fully fermented) and marketed tea both in England and abroad.
The Tea Exchange, where millions of “tea chests” are traded annually is still in London, whereas the Coffee Exchange is in New York.
London is still the place to go for a perfectly served afternoon tea, which depending on the establishment, may consist of a couple of cups of tea along with some pastries, but more often than not it is a meal.
First, be aware that no self-respecting tearoom will use tea bags, but always loose leaves.
In 1610, Dutch traders brought the first commercial shipment of tea to Europe from China. Even tough it took cargo ships four years to get to China and back; tea drinking swept Europe by the late 17th century.
In London, two events helped herald the era of tea. The plague outbreak of 1665 made the population crave a healthy life – boiled water and fresh air. One of the upsides of the Great Fire of London (1666) was the creation of open spaces in the overcrowded town. Soon vacant lots became the new fashionable places, leafy, gentle gardens with names such as the Temple of Flora. As tea consumption caught on they changed into tea gardens.
The government was quick to realize an excellent tax revenue source and imposed a considerable tax on tea in the United Kingdom and all colonies; this lasted from 1689 – 1964. The tax was fatally unpopular in some places, i.e. Boston in 1773, which started the War of Independence.
China, at the time the only source of tea and was insisting on being paid in silver for tea and in 1793, Lord Macartney was dispatched to China in an attempt to convince the Chinese to accept British goods instead. He failed, but British merchants came up with a more sinister plan – smuggling opium into China and demanding payment in silver. The situation deteriorated and created havoc with the social fabric having made a large proportion of the population heroin addicts.
In 1893, Chinese authorities destroyed 20,000 chests of British opium and a year later, the Admiralty sent a fleet to force China to open her ports to buy their “drug”.
While the opium wars were raging in China, British merchants started growing tea in northern India (Darjeeling) and later in Kenya, Africa and a little later in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon). Soon they were shipping tea from India and which was served in Chinese porcelain teacups, sweetened with sugar from the Americas, cultivated by African slaves, and supplied by Arab middlemen on location.
World War II brought the bombing of warehouses in London and rationing, and soon tea bags were introduced in an attempt to use tea dust profitably. In fact, no self-respecting tea consumer today will use tea bags since they literally consist of low quality tea dust.
In London and elsewhere in England, there are still establishments that serve crustless cucumber sandwiches, freshly baked scones served with strawberry jam and clotted Devonshire cream, biscuits, along with an assortment of loose teas – Lapsang Souchong, Darjeeling, Orange Pekoe, Sri Lankan Highland grown or blends invested by Harrod’s, Fortnum and Mason, Taylor.
Here are a few London establishments you may want to try.
The Ritz (Palmcourt). The tea is served in silver pots in Limoges, France, china cups. Live piano background music provides discreet sound entertainment. They serve afternoon tea in three settings 1.30, 3.30 and 5.30 p m.
Book in advance. www.theritzlondon.com
Harrod’s: Serves a fine cup of tea with a few biscuits on the side.
The Dorchester Hotel serves tea in fine Wedgwood china cups and porcelain drip less pots. Scones arrive warm and the clotted cream cool, then crust less cucumber sandwiches, plus delicate cookies are lovingly presented. The tea assortment is stupendous with six different and distinct choices.
No reservation required, and you can spend the whole afternoon chatting away with you companion.
PS: When in London visit the Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee, 1 Maguire Street, Butler’s Wharf, www.bramahmuseum.co.uk