My beverage of choice at work is invariably green tea, why this generates so much interest I’m not sure. General observations never rise much above its supposed resemblance to chopped cabbage or skunk (green cannabis). Colleagues generally assume it’s some kind of health fad or that I’m a member of a weird cult, I tell them I don’t want to sit and drink six cups of tea-bag tea a day each containing one spoon of sugar - I’ve never taken to tea without sugar (or to tea bags). However, since I’m partial to any amount of chocolate biscuits, and a daily intake of steak pies, chips or burgers, any supposed health dividend holds little water. Whereas my green tea does.
Tea (Camellia Sinensis or sub species Annamsis) is the world’s most popular manufactured beverage and for something which doesn’t contain alcohol or hallucinogens seems to have had a profound cultural influence in both East and West.
My early memories, which most people of my generation would share, is of loose-leaf, small-leaved black tea being stored in a tea caddy with its own ornamental shovel-shaped spoon (a souvenir of Blackpool invariably). Three, four or five times a day (or more in a crisis) several spoonfuls of leaf would be shovelled into a round glazed earthenware pot (the ‘china’ was only for display purposes, curated in the glass cabinet of our worldly treasures). The pot would have an ornate ‘cosy’ (usually hand crocheted) to keep it.....well.....cosy I suppose.
We never had a sophisticated whistling kettle then, just an ageing hand-me-down and blackened cauldron, with an ornate spout and a red-hot handle, which had to be lifted with a cloth. By the age of eight we were entrusted with tea-making which would be considered on the margins of child abuse today.
We were Brooke Bond or Co-op types, depending on circumstance and strangely enough which tea-card series was running at the time. Much of my early education came from tea cards. At six I could tell a clipper from a corvette, a Brimstone from a Small Blue, and a gudgeon from a grayling. (The days of cricketer and footballer cards seemed to be on the wane).
We always drank from cups with saucers, even if they didn’t match, and we always put our milk in second, after determining the strength of the tea, with the exception of my father. He never had milk, possibly a legacy of his days as a submariner when there was no milk or because he had picked up the habit in the East on a tour of duty. He also always called his tea, ‘cha’ though whether he recognised it as the Chinese appellation I doubt.
Throughout the world there is a tendency to drink black tea with milk, or sometimes butter or Carnation (sweetened condensed milk) depending on culture. Many Asian peoples add spices and sweeteners to create thick chewy beverages.
China, not having a dairy culture, conspicuously bucks this trend. Black teas (or red teas as the Chinese would call it just to confuse) comprise of young leaves that have been allowed or encouraged to oxidise and have a higher level of caffeine and tannin than green tea (or white tea for that matter). They keep their flavour longer and were traditionally packaged as dried blocks for sale and export. Green (and white) teas are dried before oxidation, leaves are often kept whole or roughly shredded and rolled, and therefore spring back into life once water is added, hence the jibes of my colleagues.
They are more subtle of flavour (in my opinion) and will stand several top-ups to create a range of tastes. Green tea has become popular with the spread of Chinese cuisine and can be served throughout a meal as a palate cleaner and freshener and to aid digestion.
The first time I had ‘Chinese’ tea as opposed to ‘Indian’ tea was courtesy of a Mr C - whose wife YY first excited my interest in Chinese cooking. I’ve been drinking it for forty years although I don’t make an issue of it and often purposely have a good mash of black tea (with sugar). I like to drink my tea through choice rather than habit.
I’ve tried different types, green and black, and have stayed partial to jasmine flower infused green tea throughout. (Infusion or flavouring is not unusual. Earl Gray, for instance, is an Assam black tea infused with bergamot oil). A packet of Gunpowder, with its tightly curled blue-green leaves and coppery after-taste will last me four times longer than the jasmine; it’s just not a quaffing tea to me.
When I first started my Wok and Chopper sessions for a major Holiday Company I always started them with a cup of green tea. It surprised me how few people had ever come across it let alone tried it. Having said that, 25 years ago most people couldn’t identify fresh ginger from a blind smelling, or conceive of the notion of a dried mushroom.
The Chinese are credited with adopting and cultivating tea on a large scale a thousand years BCE. They attributed a range of powers to it, some of which have been attested by modern science and some of which remain in the realms of fantasy and marketing spin. It’s spiritual value was embodied in the likening of the ‘taste of cha’ to the ‘taste of chan’ (the Chinese derivation of Zen, as in Buddhism). Coming across it in the seventeenth century the British craved it, making it an object of trade and a cultural fetish that would last ‘til today.
Wars have been fought over tea; colonies established for their tea-growing potential. Needless to say commerce has tried to mould tea consumption to suit its mass-produced, over-packaged, convenience-led ethos. The tea bag, first developed from the tea strainer to separate leaves from fluid, is to me a poor substitute for real tea. Filled with dustings, the leftovers of proper tea production, I remain convinced that the contents of many tea bags are essentially a form of tea-flavoured sawdust with red-brown colouring agent. To me the tea bag has only slightly higher status than tinned tea, iced-tea, and all those fruit-infused tisanes that lie unused in the back of the cupboard, because while they may help you diet, sleep or relax, they certainly don’t taste like tea.
Tea drinking has been glorified and demonised. Wasn’t it almost single-handedly responsible for bringing down the British Economy in the ‘50s and ‘60s? Tea breaks at work? Where are they now? - Banished to the historical dustbin of three-field rotation and hand-loom weaving.
Let’s have a Campaign for Real Tea. And while we’re waiting for the Tea Revolution to start, let’s have a cuppa!