Tea, glorious tea

Anne here. Last week I invited a few friends around for afternoon tea. I got out my mother’s and grandmother’s tea sets and made a little ritual of it. Though I probably disgraced myself by using tea-bags instead of making it in a pot. I used teabags so that each person could have the strength they preferred as well as the kind of tea they preferred — one of my friends only drinks green tea and another only drinks herbal tea.

These days we take the supply of tea and a variety of teas very much for granted. But it wasn’t always so.

The use of tea first began in China, centuries ago, and was thought to be of medicinal value. A medical text describing its use was written in the 3rd century AD by a Chinese physician. Yunnan province in China is said to be home to the world’s oldest cultivated tea tree, some 3,200 years old.

Tea was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks during the 6th century AD. It became a drink of the religious classes in Japan and Japanese priests and envoys were sent to China to learn about its culture.  The tea ceremony of Japan was introduced in the 15th century by Buddhists as a semi-religious social custom.

Tea made its way to Europe via the Portuguese in the early 16th century, and tea-drinking became well established in Britain during the following century.

When tea was first imported into England from China in the 17th century it was incredibly expensive and a luxury that only the very rich could afford to drink. For instance, in the 1690’s the Countess of Argyll paid £10 for just six ounces (170 grams) of tea. At that time her estate lawyer’s annual salary was £20 per year.

Some wealthy families even paid their servants a small tea allowance. But they also watched the servants like hawks, because with tea being so expensive, quite a few people dried out the tea-leaves and reused or resold them.The resulting teas were weak, and “padded out” with other materials.

For a long time a household’s supply of tea was kept in a lockable caddy, and the serving of tea became a ritual, with elegant cups and saucers, silver tongs for serving the sugar lumps and silver teaspoons to stir them and elegant silver urns to hold the hot water. The lady of the household would generally hold the key to the tea caddy, though sometimes a trusted cook or butler might hold it.

The exclusivity of tea drinking faded in the 1830’s when the British East India Company lost their monopoly over Chinese tea, and turned to Opium — this was the start of the Opium Wars. In the meantime, they turned to India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and set up tea plantations for their supply of tea. The tea grown there was stronger than the Chinese tea, but it was much cheaper and it supplied the British public with tea at a much more affordable price. (Some people will still ask if you prefer China or India tea.) By 1901 6 pounds of tea were imported for every person in England.

These days you can get a wide variety of teas — something to suit every palate. For a long time I preferred delicately flavored China tea (of the sort you get in Chinese restaurants) but these days I’ll drink it however it comes. But my first cuppa of the day is always coffee.

Tea drinking still seems to be more popular in England than in the USA. I wonder if the Boston Tea Party has something to do with it, making it more patriotic to drink coffee. I don’t know — it’s just a guess. I welcome your theories. Certainly in Australia tea was the #1 hot beverage up until a few decades ago.

What about you — do you prefer tea or coffee? And do you have a preference for a particular blend? I confess I drink both, but not instant coffee.

46 thoughts on “Tea, glorious tea”

  1. Love the “Lovely Stuff” illustration, Anne! As well as learning more about my favorite beverage! I grew up in the southern USA, where “tea” always came iced and sugared, unless you were attending a bridal or baby shower. Then I moved to the home of the Boston Tea Party and discovered the joy of a cuppa. I take it black with lemon, and will drink most anything except Earl Gray. Its bergamot base smells exactly like my favorite bath oil and I just can’t swallow it! Rosamund Pilcher’s book September introduced me to Lapsang Souchong, which became my morning favorite, while I prefer oolong in the afternoon. And Twining makes “Christmas Tea” which I drink all year long. And while I’m more a mug person than a cup and saucer, I will admit to having way too many teapots!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Constance. I tasted my first “iced tea” in the US and was surprised at how sweet it was — too sweet for me. When I was growing up, tea was always made in a pot and if left too long it became a bit bitter, so wasn’t used cold. But hot tea is (surprisingly) very cooling. I occasionally make iced tea, but without sugar, and often with a squeeze of lemon or lime juice.
      I’m with you on Earl Grey tea — it’s too flowery for my taste. I remember buying some for my mother years ago, and she didn’t like it either. I haven’t tasted the Christmas tea — will keep a look out for it next time I go shopping.

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  2. Years ago, I lived in England for 11 years and became a tea drinker, though I also like coffee. I prefer Indian tea and drink it with milk and a little sugar. I always chuckle over the debate of whether one puts the milk in the cup first, as I can’t tell the difference.
    There is a wonderful book about tea and how England stole tea plants from China so they could cultivate it in India. The title is “For All the Tea in China” by Sarah Rose.

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    • Thanks, Alison. Yes, I don’t really understand the debate about when the milk goes in either. Thanks for that reference — tea is endlessly fascinating, I think — and yes, the British mercantile companies were very devious and often quite ruthless about the way they did things.

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  3. Thanks for an interesting article in tea.
    When i was growing up in New York tea was used mainly when one was ill(tea and toast) and Liptons orange pekoe was the only one i knew. But when a friend in high school’s family went to England on sabbatical for a year, she came back with the “tea at four” habit and I went to her home after school for tea and discovered many different kinds of tea. What an eye opening experience! I never knew there were so many kinds of tea. And in the 1960’s one could only find British teas in the dept stores and gourmet grocery stores.
    I love my morning cuppa and my afternoon cuppa as well(sometimes i even indulge in a scone). I have always loved Earl Grey, but also like the different blends that Harney and Sons puts out and my niece sent me a lovely holiday tea inDecember. Bingley teas also puts out some lovely blends, but my go to, since my first introduction, has always been Twinnings(also easy to find as it is in all the stores). I agree with Syney Smith who saud

    “Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.”

    Reply
    • That’s interesting, Jane, about the “tea and toast” for invalids. It’s the way the earliest drinkers of tea saw it too, as an aid to health. It’s quite comforting, especially with toast.
      I nearly made scones for my friends who came for afternoon tea, but one of them was diabetic, and as well as scones being all carbs, I was unable to find a sugar free jam in my local supermarket. And scones served without jam and cream are a no-no for me.
      It’s fun trying out the different tea blends, I agree. There’s a shop near me that is a specialist tea shop, and there are hundreds of varieties. I sometimes shop there for a gift for a tea-loving friend.
      Love the Sydney Smith quote.

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  4. What a lovely tea history, Anne! I wrote a book that went heavily into tea (The China Bride) and even had my earl hero invent a version of Earl Grey, which he called Earl’s Blend. But mostly I’m a coffee drinker–except when I’m in Great Britain. When in Rome…!

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    • I remember that book, Mary Jo, and remember reading about “the Earl’s Blend.” I smiled when I read it, knowing you were riffing off Earl Grey tea. But I’m sure there were quite a few special blends created for certain wealthy people, just as there were varieties of snuff created in earlier times (which I learned from Georgette Heyer).

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  5. There are coffee klatches and then there are tea gatherings, which can be formal or not! I love tea places with their tea pots, lovely cups and saucers, and lovely little food bites. But I am addicted to coffee without a doubt too- a wonderful article, Anne. Thank you!

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    • Thanks, Sandy — yes there are some wonderful tea shops, and even though I gave some away when I moved house, I still have too many teapots for my needs, because I can’t resist them. It’s silly, because as I said in my post, I used teabags for my friends the other day.
      I am also addicted to my morning coffee, but usually that’s the only one I have. I realized a while back that I was getting addicted — headaches etc when I missed a coffee — so I decided to cut back. So now it’s a deliciously strong brewed coffee in the morning and a cup of tea in the afternoon.

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  6. I’m more of a coffee drinker myself although I do enjoy a cup of tea sometimes. Bigelow’s Raspberry Royale is my tea drink of choice. When I spent time at my great aunt’s farm as child we stopped everything mid afternoon for a tea break – served with a couple of cookies. Wonderful memories.

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    • Thanks, Mary. Here were often stop for morning and afternoon tea. Visiting guests who come to romance writer conferences in Australia and New Zealand are always surprised by the lavish morning and afternoon tea breaks we have.

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  7. At 0ne time, when I was much younger, I drank an entire pot of coffee every morning. Now, I lean more toward tea. But, I live in Texas, so it is iced tea. I use 50% Earl Grey and 50% English Breakfast. I make sun tea – when the large vessel sits in the sun the water gets quite warm. Not quite a rolling boil, but it is just south of that.

    I am aware that what I am saying is heresy. But, I am just an ignorant Texas, so what do I know? I do know that watching the color of the tea gives me a great idea of how wonderful it will taste. Y’all take care.

    Reply
    • Annette, no such thing as an “an ignorant Texas” or tea “heresy” — we’re all entitled to enjoy our tea any way we like it. I’ve tried making sun tea in the summer, but to me it doesn’t taste much different from the sort I make with hot water that’s then cooled. Might be doing it wrong. The friend who told me how to make it was from Iowa — maybe I needed a Texan to show me how.

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  8. I prefer black tea, unsweetened, especially iced. I like espresso drinks, mainly a latte when I’m out and about.

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  9. My parents always drank their coffee strong and black in the morning, but would brew a pot of tea for the evening meal. I find coffee to be bitter unless you at least add cream. My preferred drink is tea, which I can drink without cream or sugar (but I usually do add a packet of stevia or honey). I am addicted to Harney and Sons Hot Cinnamon Spice tea and will usually have a cup with breakfast, although I will vary that with other types and brands occasionally. The rest of the day I drink herbal teas (to limit the caffeine). I like anything with mint, ginger, citrus, cinnamon, or vanilla, and Celestial Seasonings Bengal Spice.

    I will drink coffee if I am traveling or going out for breakfast, but only because most places won’t have good tea.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Karen, you’re right that a lot of places don’t make good tea. I well remember a friend (from Australia who married an American and lives there now) arguing with waiters because they never made the tea with boiling water. Green tea is best made with hot (not boing) water but most people here insist that tea is made with boiling water. She almost never got the tea she wanted, and doesn’t like coffee. I was always a bit embarrassed to eat out with her.
      I also drink some herbal teas later in the day to avoid the caffeine. But in the morning I want my caffeine.

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  10. Lovely post, Anne. I start the day with coffee, but I very much enjoy tea. It’s fun to explore different flavors. Smoky teas are interesting, and I do like the delicate Chinese teas as well. My go-to everyday tea is English breakfast.

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    • Andrea, English Breakfast is also my go-to cuppa, but like you, I start the day with a good cup of coffee. I’m not too keen on some of the smokier teas, but in Chinese or Vietnamese restaurants I love drinking their delicately flavored jasmine tea.

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  11. I am a 100% black tea drinker, alternating between Irish and Scottish Breakfast most of the time, with a little Pu’erh tea thrown in about once a week. I usually add honey and 1/2 & 1/2.

    I’ve never enjoyed coffee and can always tell if a pot in a restaurant held coffee previously. I just can’t handle the taste and will send it back! :p Through the years, I’ve noticed that people who drink both coffee and tea like Earl Grey, but if it is the only tea available, I will pass and drink water instead.

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    • Thanks LilMissMolly, I had to look up Pu’erh tea, and now I know about it, I will look for it at the specialist tea shop near me. If they’re not too busy they will make a pot of tea for customers so they can try it out.
      That’s interesting about being able to taste when a pot has held coffee. Some people In know really dislike the taste of coffee, so I can imagine it would really spoil the teaste of the tea. I don’t like Earl Grey either — too flowery for me.

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  12. I like strong black coffee in the morning. I can’t drink tea on an empty stomach. I think it’s the tannins. Hot tea is lovely later in the day. I enjoy English breakfast, Irish breakfast, and Assam teas.

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    • Thanks, Pat. That’s interesting about the tannins in tea. I also start the day with a good strong brewed coffee, and enjoy tea later in the day. And English breakfast is my everyday tea.

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  13. I start out the day with coffee, but I also love teas, and I keep a huge variety in the house. It depends what mood I’m in- sometimes I crave Twinings with a fruit flavor, like black current. sometimes green tea with jasmine, sometimes Earl Grey, sometimes a Ceylon blend, which is my favorite variety of black tea. Sometimes I add spices, like cardamom and cloves to the pot to make an Indian style chai. In the summer I made sun tea, using a mixture of different Celestial Seasonings herbal blends. But it is very difficult to get a decent cup of tea in a restaurant in the States, which is why I usually default to coffee when eating out!

    Reply
    • Thanks Karen — I know it’s hard to get a good cup of tea in US restaurants — as I mentioned in my comment to Karen (above). I also enjoy playing mix and match with various tea and flavorings. Sometimes I’ll offer a tea drinking friend a “cocktail” which means I’ll throw in a few different teabags into a pot. I especially enjoy the lemon/lemongrass/kinds with green tea and a fresh slice of gingerroot or a slice of lemon or lime.

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  14. I’m not a coffee drinker at all and living in Ireland tea is part and parcel of life. When you visit someone or they visit you it’s inevitable that tea is drunk.
    About twelve years ago I became intolerant to cow’s milk. I could not face drinking black tea so that was the end of that for me. Nowadays I drink herbal tea, mainly nettle, dandelion and fennel. I thought I’d never get over not being able to drink ‘normal’ tea again as I loved it but now I don’t miss it at all.
    Very interesting post!

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    • Thanks, Teresa. I know exactly what you mean by “living in Ireland tea is part and parcel of life” — the Australia of my childhood was exactly the same, especially in the country. Coffee was much more a city person’s drink, and was probably influenced by European migration after WW2.
      What a shame about your allergy to cows’ milk. But you’re right — you get used to missing it. I gave up cows’ milk for 6 months when I was on a dairy-free diet, and stopped drinking coffee altogether because I didn’t like it black. At that time I drank tea without milk. Then a vegan visitor came to stay for a few days and I bought soy milk for her. She convinced me to try soy milk in my coffee, even though I’d tried it months before and didn’t like it at all. But this time, after a long period without coffee, it tasted . . . okay. So for the next few years I used soy milk. Am back onto cows’ milk now, but it was interesting to realize that a long break from coffee made the soymilk taste acceptable to me.

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  15. Thank you for your post, Anne. You asked, “Do you prefer tea or coffee?” My reply is hot chocolate or Milo! I like coffee flavored ice cream and Hopjes (Dutch coffee candies) but not coffee itself. Tea I drink when I’m sick (a lemon herbal tea) or when we have an ice storm and the temperature in the house is in the low forties and I need to warm up. My husband drinks both tea and coffee.

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    • Thanks, Kareni — I’m chuckling at your response. Yes, hot chokkie is delicious. Interesting that you don’t mind the taste of coffee in some foods, but can’t drink it.
      I also found it interesting that you drink tea to warm up — my dad used to drink hot tea in the hottest weather and claimed it cooled you down.

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  16. What a lovely post! What would we do without our favorite hot drinks?! Tea is mine, various black teas from English breakfast to tetley, specialty blends, homegrown herbal mixes, some I like brewed with milk (well in my house it’s evaporated milk), some by the pot, others by the cup. Healthy or sick, makes no difference, there is a mix at my house! Lots of variety as long as it’s hot and soothing, and in the morning it better have caffeine!
    I can make a great cup of coffee too, but I won’t drink it. To many years as a waitress!

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    • Thanks, Jenni — yes one thing about tea is that it comes in many many variations, so you can make a cuppa to suit whatever your situation or mood. And when my parents lived in Malaysia, they had to use evaporated milk in their coffee. But they mostly drank tea by preference.
      Am curious as to why you were put off coffee because of your years as a waitress.

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  17. This may be a long winded excuse Anne, I think when you smell it all day, over and over, you come to expect more than it tastes like. I still enjoy the smell, but when I place it to my lips and take a sip, there should more enjoyment to my taste buds!

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    • I don’t think anyone needs an excuse to like or dislike a taste, Jenni, but it makes sense that after smelling something all day everyday, after a while you don’t enjoy it. And yes, your tastebuds need to enjoy themselves. Thank goodness we have endless variety these days.

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  18. I grew up in the Fifties in the Midwest and there was a strange belief that coffee was bad for children but tea was okay. And of course Lipton’s was it. My parents thought I was weird for drinking it straight, no milk or sugar (except sweet ice tea in summer). I always hated coffee until my forties when I had a change in diet and espresso won me over. I now start my day with a cappuccino (using lactose-free milk for the foam). But I keep plenty of tea around. My son loves his sweet milky Lipton’s. And herbal settles me before bed.

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    • Eugenia, that myth, about coffee for children was widespread here too when I was a child. It was supposed to stunt your growth. My coffee drinking began when I was about 15. And I like a good strong coffee in the morning and tea later in the day.

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  19. Thanks, that was an interesting read. Tea is my hot drink of choice. My Dad never understood how I could drink it rather than coffee first thing in the morning. My Grandmother who was born in England always said you can drink coffee out of anything but you must drink tea out of china. The only type of container I can’t stand for tea are styrofoam cups. I drink my tea clear (I’ve learned to say black, no sugar when ordering in restaurants). There are tea blends I prefer during certain seasons. The tea I choose when it’s -35C is not the tea I choose when it’s +35C. My mood also affects my choice, a black current blend is a comfort tea. I find some teas are good hot or cold which I’ve usually learned by making a cup and forgetting about it because I started reading. I usually order my tea from Murchies here in Canada, they have some lovely blends, Baker Street is one of my favourites.

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    • Oh I do agree about tea (or coffee) in styrofoam cups, Robyn. I love your grandmother’s advice. I love the ritual of tea-making, though I am lazy these days and generally use teabags instead of a pot with loose tea-leaves. And the range of teas we can get now is wonderful. I have a friend who when I ask her what she’d like to drink, answers “A cocktail” — but which she means several herbal teas steeped in a pot. I often do it with lemon grass, mint and something else.

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  20. I’m just getting around to reading this blog entry. I am a dedicated tea drinker, but as so many have commented, I will order brewed decaf coffee in restaurants rather than tea. As a child, I was not allowed to drink coffee, and was only given tea when I was ill, but when I was in the 5th grade of elementary school, my teacher used to ask me to prepare her tea during the lunch hour. Her family was originally from the Isle of Man. She said that the only tea that she would drink here in the States was Red Rose orange pekoe. When I became old enough to choose my own hot beverage, it became two cups of Red Rose every morning, and herbals the rest of the day. My favorite herbal is Stash’s Licorice Spice. I only take milk in my black tea, but Licorice Spice and other herbals don’t need anything added. I usually drink my tea out of mugs, but I do have my mother’s beautiful collection of various makes and patterns of English bone China cups and saucers, acquired on vacations in Canada. I have them on display, but my mother used them for many celebrations over the years. Thank you, Anne, for your interesting post. There is nothing better than drinking tea and reading a good book!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Patricia. It’s a shame people can’t get good tea in restaurants. But I suppose a lot of people — and restaurants — don’t have a kettle to boil. It’s so standard here, I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t have an electric kettle/jug. Even in the most basic hotels and motels here, a jug/kettle is standard so I was quite surprised when I found out that some Americans I know have never had one. And hotel rooms never have them either. Coffee machines, yes, a kettle/jug no.
      I haven’t tried red rose orange pekoe, but I do like Twinings version. I’ve never tasted a licorice tea — I might see whether my local tea specialist shop has it. I also have dozens of elegant cup/saucer/plate sets, some of which were Mum’s, and others where she gave my sisters and me a new set every year. But I mostly drink from a mug too.

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  21. I’m Chinese American, so my parents probably fed me diluted hot Chinese tea when I was a baby.
    Nowadays, I find I need that hot cup of coffee to get started in the morning.
    I like Earl Grey & English Breakfast & the classical mixes of black tea, green tea, white tea—jasmine tea, chrysanthemum tea, etc.
    What’s more important to me is the quality of the tea leaves; I tasted the difference when Twinings started using the cheaper tea leaves.
    Boba Tea looks fun.
    Tea or coffee, whatever the mood, I usually have it in my favorite mug!

    Reply
    • That’s interesting, Helen. For a long time I didn’t much like tea at all, though I drank it if it was served to me, usually strong and with milk. Then I realized that the tea I really did enjoy was the tea served in Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, so after that I always drank tea weak and black. That’s how I drank it for years, but these days I’m happy to drink tea any way it comes.
      I also need a good cup of strong coffee to get me started in the morning.

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