Any time is teatime

Country Life Every Week - - Spectator -

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

Leslie Geddes-brown

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.