“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me. ” ~C.S. Lewis
I’m not an expert on types of teas. I just love tea and everything related, like china cups, chintz pots and pretty sugar bowls. We always associate it with the English, but tea originated in China over 5,000 years ago. The Chinese were aware of the health benefits we’re only beginning to recognize today. Later, Buddhist priests carried tea seeds to Japan. The first European to personally encounter tea and write about it was a Portuguese Jesuit Father in1560. The Portuguese developed a trade route by which they shipped their tea to Lisbon, and then Dutch ships transported it to France, Holland, and the Baltic countries. As far back as the 1600s tea was tremendously popular in France.
The first Queen Elizabeth granted permission for the British East India Company to begin trade routes and ports, which later led from spices to tea, cotton and other commodities. Coffee tea and chocolate were exotic beverages, which caused a revolution in drinking habits.
Before tea, beer or ale was the preferred morning drink. At first valued for their curative powers, they were soon counted among the necessities of daily life, and the utensils used in their preparation and service became essential as well. The practice of tea drinking arrived in colonial America with colonists from both England and the Netherlands and was established by the mid-seventeenth century, evidenced by the number of tea wares recorded in household inventories. The earliest of these were undoubtedly imported from abroad, but American silversmiths began producing teapots by the start of the eighteenth century.
In the 1760s, the British imposed that pesky tax on tea, and colonists took to smuggling tea or drinking herbal infusions. Outraged merchants, shippers, and colonists staged demonstrations, culminating in the famous Boston Tea Party. Paul Revere’s ride and the first shots fired at Lexington were but a year and a half away.
Political hostilities were eventually resolved, and Americans once again enjoyed tea time. Moreau de Saint-Méry, a foreign visitor to Philadelphia in the 1790s, noted the warmth and hospitality of these events. “The whole family is united at tea, to which friends, acquaintances, and even strangers are invited.”
Queen Elizabeth II continues a tradition started by Queen Victoria in 1860 and opens the palace gardens once a year to host three afternoon tea parties, each attended by 8,000 people! I’m all for an afternoon tea party, but I usually plan something a little less grand.
In the late 1880’s in both America and England, fine hotels introduced tea rooms and tea courts. Served in the late afternoon, Victorian ladies and their gentlemen friends met for tea and conversation. These tea services became the hallmark of the elegance of the hotel, such as the tea services at the Ritz in Boston and the Plaza in New York.
In 1904 at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, trade exhibitors from around the world brought their products. A tea plantation owner named Richard Blechynden had planned to give away free samples of hot tea to fair visitors, but a heat wave hit. No one was interested. To save his investment of time and travel, he dumped a load of ice into the brewed tea and served the first iced tea.
Four years later, tea merchant Thomas Sullivan of New York developed bagged tea quite by accident as well. He wrapped samples and delivered them to restaurants for their consideration. The restaurants brewed the samples in the bags to avoid the mess of tea leaves, an a marketing opportunity was born. I must agree I much prefer bags over loose tea, too.
It’s difficult to get a good cup of tea while traveling or eating out, because restaurants serve you a cup of hot water and a teabag. Pooh. Real tea is brewed in a pot. True aficionados will even quibble over the type of pot and the blend of leaves.
How to make the perfect pot of tea:
Unless your tap water has a lot of chlorine, use tap rather than filtered water. Tea adheres to the minerals in tap water for a better flavor.
Make sure your teapot is clean and run HOT water in it and put the lid on so the pot is heated. A tea cozy is a good investment, but several insulated hot pads will do in a pinch.
I use an electric kettle to heat water, but for years I used a stovetop kettle or a heavy saucepan. Bring the water to boiling. (Unless you’re steeping green tea. With green tea, you want to extract the nectar, not cook the leaves.)
The rule of thumb is one tea bag per cup of tea or person. You can estimate by measuring how many cups your teapot holds. I buy family size tea bags and I prefer Luzianne brand. To one family size bag I add one or two flavored bags, such as India Spice Chai, Bengal Spice or Apple Cinnamon, depending on how much flavor or spice I want.
When water is hot, pour standing water out of your teapot, place the teabags in and pour the hot water over. Place the lid on your pot and cover with the cozy or insulated pot holders to keep the heat in while the tea is steeping. This process is known as the “agony of the tea” and is quite beautiful to watch if you’ve ever seen it through a glass pot. Let stand for about 4 minutes.
When you pour your first cup, enjoy the aromatic scent. Sweeten if you like or add lemon or milk (not cream). There’s nothing like a steaming cup of fresh hot tea.
I drink three or four pots a day, summer and winter, and I much prefer it over coffee. Scones are my treat of choice when I host a tea party, but biscotti or a cookie will do. If you want to hold a tea party, simply pick up a few pretty cups and a tablecloth at your local thrift store. Set a vase of flowers on the table and enjoy the company of your friends.