Reading the Tea Leaves of History
“Don’t talk to me till I’ve had my second cup of tea in the morning” is something you’ll eventually hear me say during the process of getting to know me.
Mainly it’s an attempt to excuse my general morning brain fog that persists throughout the day, but I do have an addiction to tea which renders me useless without it. If I don’t get my second cup before setting about my day, I’m like a zombie. I’ll be dizzy and shaky and won’t be able to think properly at all. To be quite honest the first cup of tea is simply a stepping stone towards the second: the first one is useless on its own, but the second is the magic one which allows my brain to begin processing things.
Before we go any further I’d like to make it clear that I am not a tea connoisseur, I don’t drink fancy, flavoured teas. I tried green tea once and hated it, so maybe it is a bit pretentious of be to claim to be a tea addict. I only deal with ordinary, no-frills, black tea. With milk of course. And two sugars.
Tea is an ancient drink, and perhaps this is why it is so important to so many people around the world. Legend has it that the first cup of tea was made in China in 2737 BC when Emperor Shen Nung was relaxing by a tree whilst his servant boiled some water for him. Some leaves from the tree fell into the drink, and the emperor decided to give it a try, unknowingly becoming the host of the first-ever tea party.
The word ‘tea’ actually comes from the Chinese letter 茶, pronounced as ‘tu’, loosely translating to ‘bitter herb’. Its popularity as a medicinal drink rapidly spread throughout China, with the 2nd century (AD) physician Hua Tuo claiming, ‘to drink bitter t’u constantly makes one think better’, proving my point about not being able to function properly without my morning tea. During the Tang Dynasty, the drinking of tea spread to Japan, Vietnam, and Korea. In Japan, tea was initially the chosen beverage of the religious groups, with Buddhist monks bringing tea back from their trips to China, using it to help them stay awake during their long hours of prayer and meditation. The Japanese began using matcha in religious rituals, whereby the preparation and presentation of tea became the centre of social gatherings, and a symbol of harmony, respect, and spirituality.
By the 15th century, tea drinking had become a symbol of class and status, with people using the event as a chance to show off their wealth. Murata Juko opposed these ideas and wanted to create a ceremony of tea centred around the idea of ‘Wabi-Sabi’, which represents the beauty in the transience of life, and the idea that age and imperfection enhances objects, and people. This is one of my favourite things about tea; the simple joy of it. The making of tea can be a therapeutic process, and taking time out to enjoy a cup of tea gives us the chance to pause and reflect, or maybe even catch up with friends.
European merchants and colonisers eventually discovered tea and brought it home with them. It was actually a Portuguese princess who popularised tea drinking in Britain; Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Charles II, and her fondness for the drink soon made it a staple of high society. It was during the reign of Charles II that the East India Company was set up, laying the foundations for the British tea trade.
Growing up in an Irish household, tea is a hugely important thing. Tea is not simply just a cup of tea on its own, oh no. Tea means accompanying sandwiches, cakes, or a biscuit at the very least. Being presented with a mug of tea alone is known as “English tea”, and it’s just not how we do things. The only exception is when someone says they’ll have “a cup of tea in the hand”, which, often to the host’s relief, indicates the guest won’t be staying long.
In a country that’s cold and rainy most of the time, perhaps it’s not surprising that us Irish are so fond of a hot drop of tea. We were first introduced to the drink by the British in the 1800s, but the quality (or qualiTEA…sorry) of the tea imported to Ireland wasn’t the best, so a lot of milk was needed to make it palatable. This led to Irish tea being brewed much more strongly than English tea, and to this day we’re known for taking our tea extra strong. When the Second World War came around, however, English importation of tea became disrupted, and the Irish had to go directly to the source for their tea. We started importing our tea from East Africa, finding that these darker teas were much better suited to the strong Irish tastes than the Asian teas that Britain had been providing. Tea drinking became much more popular in Ireland after the Great Famine of 1845–1849, with reliance on the potato being replaced by increasing consumption of bread and tea as a way to get the nutrients they needed. This offers a stark contrast to the opulence of tea society in Britain, with tea not so much a luxury as a necessity. Tea provides so much in one small cup; energy from the caffeine, protein from the milk, and then even more energy from the sugar. Indeed, the restorative purposes of tea are not restricted just to the humans of Ireland, however. My father has often told me of cases where hot, milky tea was the only remedy known to bring around a sick calf on the small farm he grew up on in the Wild West of Ireland.
If you don’t believe how important tea culture is in Ireland, check out Mrs. Doyle from the 1990s sitcom Father Ted. Full of exaggerated stereotypes, Mrs. Doyle’s insistence to ‘have a nice cup of tea’ is actually not too dissimilar to the reception you would get in most Irish households (at least in my experience).
When I say that I am a ‘tea addict’, perhaps it is not just the taste I have grown addicted to. There are so much history and tradition contained within a cup of tea, from its origins in China and use in medicine, its application to the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi, and more personal for me, its importance in my own culture and family. So next time you sit down to enjoy a cup of tea, remember all it has been through to get to your kitchen today and enjoy being a part of that rich, long history.