insideKENT Magazine Issue 59 - February 2017 - Page 80

FOOD+DRINK THE WONDER OF Tea cont. Legend has it that Chinese emperor Shen Nung was enjoying some refreshing water beneath a tree way, way back in 2737 BC. To ensure that the water wasn’t going to kill off the emperor, his servant boiled it before giving it to him and, so the story goes, as he was boiling the water, some leaves from the tree fell into the pot. The tree was the camellia sinensis, and Shen Nung unwittingly drank the first ever cup of tea. Who knows just how much of the legend is true, but the fact remains that tea drinking was popular in China thousands of years before the rest of the world had even heard of it. It was so well loved that in the eighth century a writer called Lu Yu wrote a book entirely about it – it was called the Ch’a Ching (Tea Classic). It was at this point that Buddhist monks from Japan who had travelled to China realised that the Japanese people might love tea as much as the Chinese, and they brought the infusion and traditions with them when they went back home. Despite its popularity in the east, Europe only recognised the greatness of this infusion in the early 1600s. In 1606, a consignment of tea was shipped all the way from China to Holland – the first consignment of its kind although there have been countless since – and before long it was fashionable in Dutch society to take tea. It came at a high price, though, so only the wealthy could afford to drink it. It was most likely this, rather than any real liking for the taste of tea, that led to its sudden and energetic spread throughout the rest of Europe in the years that followed. Britain, however, still didn’t trust tea. It was something that foreigners liked. It came from far away. It was an infusion and that might be a bad thing. It was thanks to a rather fabulous and far-sighted coffee house owner who had an establishment in Sweeting’s Rents in London that first got people talking about tea. It was 1658, and he ran a newspaper advert that told everyone that ‘tcha alias tee’ would be available at his establishment. It certainly created a buzz, albeit a small one. However, in 1664 things took a major turn in the tea drinking department – Charles II married Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza and she was a proud tea addict. The stuff soon started to be imported by the crateful. But that’s not to say there weren’t problems. In the seventeenth century, tea was still incredibly pricey. And that was all down to tax. By 1689, the tax was so high that it almost stopped all tea sales completely. It was reduced in 1692 from 25p in the pound to 5p, but that’s not where it ended. Tea tax was forever being changed – even up until the latter part of the twentieth century. As always, high prices and high demand meant that a thriving tea smuggling business soon grew up. The fact that tea was smuggled into Britain is well known, but did you also know that merchants would get around the fact that they couldn’t buy large amount of tea leaves by mixing what they could get with… additives? Dried sheep dung was particularly popular, although leaves picked from any old trees were often used. To give the tea the right colour, poisonous copper carbonate was also thrown in for good measure. Delicious! Smuggling came to an abrupt end in 1784. William Pitt the Younger was the new prime minister, and he was also a tea drinker. So one of his first policies when he came to office was to reduce the tax on tea from 119 percent down to a teeny tiny 12.5 percent. Tea was affordable, the smugglers went out of business, and the British enthusiasm for tea has never dwindled since that time. In fact, we’re rather famous for it. 80