Tea – Part 1, the beginning

The first tea plant (camellia sinensis) originated in South East Asia around northeast India, the north of Burma and the southwest of China and Tibet. I found a long scientific paper in a library where the chromosomal number (2n=30), the hybridization and a host of other aspects were admirably discussed and explained but it made me hungry and I really could not see the relevance of it all for this post. This is a food blog and I care only that the birthplace of tea is the Yunnan Province. Humans ate or chewed the leaves at first and then slowly found out that it would taste rather good boiled, chopped up and then even later shredded, steamed, roasted and brewed as time went on.

A host of legends surround the creation of tea, the content of which could be the subject of another post on another blog – I will write it some time and if anyone needs it, just ask.

Tea was already served under Shen Nung in 2700 BC but they began drinking it as we know it today around 1000 BC when the Han Dynasty regarded it highly for its health properties. The history of tea becomes cloudy at this point and I have not been able to sort out the difference between legend and fact which is why I will not include it now. Later, I may. In 59 BC the first book giving instructions on the making of tea was written by Wang Bao. In 589 AD tea was introduced to Japan by the Buddhist monks of the Sui dynasty. I found so much writing and discussion about this one subject, none of which would interest anyone else except me so I’ll pick up the thread again when we get to the Song Dynasty and the production and preparation of tea becomes a huge industry. Tea was so highly regarded that tea bricks were used for currency at one time. In the 13th Century AD they started to process tea differently and it was roasted and hand crumbled, as opposed to being steamed. Steaming did not stop completely and it is still done in some places but on small scale only. At this point the tea making processes, like brewing, becomes similar to ours today.

Tea production was laborious and again a myriad of legends arose – one of the most famous being the legend of the monkeys picking tea. To those of you that still do, errrr ummm …. bring me proof positive and I will retract my comments and apologise. I couldn’t find anyone that had ever seen the monkey picking the tea from the tea plant and taken a single photograph.

In 1391 AD after a Ming court issued a decree that only loose tea would be accepted as “tribute”, tea was distributed, in loose leaf form and in earthenware jars. When tea spread to Japan in 589 AD it became the privilege of the Japanese priests, envoys and the religious classes to drink it. Apparently a priest called Saicho bought the first seeds but somehow the dates don’t balance so I hesitate to confirm this and then when a certain Emperor Saga began drinking tea, permission was given to the royals only and cultivation took off because the royals wanted their tea and they wanted to create a profitable industry at the same time. Cultivars were developed at a furious pace from that point onwards. In 1100 Esai wrote a book called How to stay Healthy by drinking Tea and even the Japanese warriors began drinking it. Green tea was reserved for the cultured and the common men drank the brewed tea’s. Green tea makes a delicious sorbet, a refreshing drink in summer when used with fresh limes and is one of the healthiest and tastiest teas available today.

The use of the tea ceremony, as an important diplomatic and business tool began in the early 1500’s.

In 1738 sencha tea, a roasted tea, was developed – its just an unfermented form of green tea and quite delicious and makes exquisite, creamy mousse ice-cream. From here so many different varieties were produced that the mouth waters. In 1835 Yamamoto introduced gyokuro (jewel dew) by shading the tea plants in the weeks leading up to harvesting and by the end of the Meiji period machine manufacturing began replacing handmade tea and the taste got worse. Well, it must have.

I will not discuss Korean tea here right now suffice to say that they don’t produce much, if any, since the area is not suited to tea growing. They did try but apparently it was disgusting so they imported from China and an interesting culture was developed around that.

In India in 1598 or 99 depending on who you believe one Jan Huyghen van Lindschoten, who could only have been Dutch, said in a book “The Indians ate the leaves as a vegetable with garlic and oil and boiled the leaves to make a brew.” In my book that means they discovered and they used it first. However, according to the Cambridge World History of Food (Weisburger and Comer) tea cultivation was started in India in the 1900’s by the British. Today India is the world’s leading producer of tea since they produce more than China. I do know that the Indians use about 70% of their own tea and that they produce an excellent Darjeeling – not that it’s my personal favourite.

It was Sir Robert Bruce who on behalf of Her Majesty claimed responsibility for the accidental discovery of tea around 1824, something with which I cannot concur. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica (the newest one) Sir Robert was introduced to a “Singpho” chieftain at which time they found out about the tea plants growing in the Assam and Arunachal Hills. However, since the Indians were already both eating and brewing it in the late 1500’s I think it is a bit rich of him. At the time of Sir Robert, the British were looking for another place to buy tea because their Chinese sources were a tad unpredictable. They appointed Sri Maniram Dewan as the first Indian Tea Planter because they refused to allow anyone else to plant tea anymore. It still baffles me that they had to have permission to plant something that they had already been using for over 200 years in their own country! The poor man was put to death by the British when he refused to comply with those laws and he became the first martyr of the Indian Freedom Struggle for NE India.

Even though the Indians had already been using the tea, the British again claim to have “discovered” tea when they started doing business with it 1836 but since they took it to Sri Lanka in 1867, they have redeemed themselves to me. I love good tea and the best comes from Sri Lanka -like it or not . Apparently seeds from both China and India were used. British plantations were taken over by the Sir Lanka Government around 1960 but they are now privatized and are now run by plantation companies. At this point I want to stop except to say that it is the third biggest tea producing country in the World and has the best tea in the World. For this reason I always talk about it and for this reason I discussed the company who produces the best tea, breaking my own rule regarding retail. About 188,000 hectares (give or take a few) are currently under production and whether we like it or not, we can thank the plantation companies for this. The tea is roughly divided into the three logical groups of upper, middle and lower country and produces about 19 % of world tea requirement.

Taiwan manufactures Oolong tea and also green tea. I used to dislike oolong tea but since a Taiwanese friend gave me a box I started to enjoy the beautiful dark rose tea. Often I do it an “injustice” by drinking it cold with lemon on the hot days! It’s really good with fresh berries, pureed in a blender and added to the tea. I sweeten the tea with a touch of honey from the farm when it’s still hot and the tartness of the cool berries creates a really excellent summertime drink.

Tea, anyone?



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8 responses to “Tea – Part 1, the beginning

  1. I look forward to reading your future posts about tea! Thanks for your sweet comment on my site – glad you enjoyed the recipe!

  2. I would love a cup thank you! Very interesting post, I love the rituals of tea serving. Amazing how we use tea to sort out just about any problem or celebrate every occasion.

  3. A photo of a monkeys picking tea…now that would be quite something else. Very interesting post on tea although I, myself, am more of a coffee person (goes with the espresso territory). Just wanted to stop by to say thanks for the comment. I am not italian in blood, but I reckon that with my appreciation of the culture, it may as well be so.


  4. I love both and I can’t start the morning without coffee. When I am in Italy I drink coffee constantly because they have the best – that simple.

    However, it is only the last five years that I have started to drink tea and learn about it and I am eternally grateful to those that taught me because the health benefits have been immense and visible! On top of that the tea I drink, Dilmah, has such an incredible range that I become like an addict and have to try each kind and then learn about it, so I irritate everyone around me – hence this blog ……

    Will do one on coffee soon – watch this space!

  5. Excellent post packed with interesting info. I’m not a huge tea drinker myself (I only ever drink Rooibos, peppermint and Rooibos chai) and I always feel this is a gap in my culinary sophistication. I love the ceremony of tea, but grew up with far too much overbrewed Five Roses with a ton of milk and sugar – ugh!! Not sure the trauma will ever fade…

  6. No wonder – the shock to your system must have been immense! Never to late to learn, though! There’s nothing wrong with Rooibos and peppermint though!

  7. Rowena – one does not have to be Italian in blood ….. you fall in love whether you want to or not!

  8. “I am in no way interested in immortality, but only in the taste of tea.”
    …the 400 year-old Lu T’ung, (b. 755 A.D.)

    hope you’ve recovered well

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