Any time is teatime
IN 1942, the historian A. A. Thompson wrote: ‘They talk about Hitler’s secret weapon, but what about England’s secret weapon—tea. That’s what keeps us going and that’s what’s going to carry us through.’ At the same time, Churchill said that tea was more important than ammunition and ordered that the Navy should give its sailors as much as they wanted. During the Cold War, the government worried about tea supplies. If the Soviets had hit us with a nuclear bomb, then 75% of our imports would have been threatened. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about.
Today, it sometimes seems that Britain has succumbed to the false delights of coffee, so it’s reassuring to know that we’re still drinking 165 million cups of tea every day.
The connection between Britain and tea goes back centuries and has been a pretty rowdy one. There have been wars over tea —notably the Opium Wars, which attempted to control China’s export of the drink, and the Boston Tea Party, which sparked America’s revolution—there have been inventions (such as the tea clipper ships and I suppose I must mention the awful teabag) and there has been rampant colonialism. Since its inception in China during the Tang dynasty (609– 907), tea growing has spread to India, Ceylon, Kenya, Rwanda and, lately, Cornwall.
I recently ordered my regular teas from Steenbergs, a North Yorkshire firm that sells them loose and organic. First comes Lapsang Souchong from the Fujian province of China, black and smoky and said to have been invented in 1610, when, during one of the innumerable warlord conflicts, soldiers were forced to dry the leaves on fires of pine wood. The Chinese are dismissive of this fine tea, saying it’s for westerners.
My other two favourites are Indian. One is second-flush Margaret Hope from the Kurseong valley in Darjeeling. There’s a sad story that Margaret, the daughter of the tea planter, loved the valley, but died on the voyage home. Mr Bagdon, the planter, called his land Margaret’s Hope, now shortened to Margaret Hope.
The second is Tippy Assam Hazelbank from the banks of the Brahmaputra River, named after Hazel, the daughter of Dr Mead, a state official.
Although I can’t claim any tea planters in my ancestry, I do have five Mcpherson brothers and cousins who went to Guyana to plant sugar as early as 1800. They called their estates Dunkeld and Perth. I also have coffee growers in my background. They farmed in Ceylon on an estate called Hylton after their old home.
Hew’s family is loaded with tea planters—at least 11—who were growing the bushes from the 1890s until the 1950s. Most travelled out to Ceylon as an alternative to joining the Army. Their estates were called after Scottish lands such as Rothes.
Then I got curious about the names of popular teas. There’s Earl Grey, which is perfumed with bergamot oil and named after the 1830s Prime Minister. According to legend, this was blended for the family by a Chinese mandarin to suit the limey water at their seat of Howick Hall in Northumberland. This is seen as a toff’s tea.
Less so is Typhoo, which was invented in 1903. The word apparently means ‘doctor’ in Chinese. Typhoo is famous for refusing to drop imperial measures from its labels. PG Tips is even less grand, having been invented in the 1930s as ‘Pre-gest-tee’. This apparently alluded to tea’s ability to help digestion before a meal.
Until I started researching tea, thanks to The True History of Tea by Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh, I hadn’t realised how the little bushes had changed the world. Coffee has nothing like it, which confirms my decision to give up the beans and stick with the leaves. I’ve not regretted it.
‘We’re still drinking 165 million cups of tea every day