Tea is timeless

Ruth Griffiths

Captain Picard, in Star Trek the Next Generation, orders Earl Grey tea, hot, from the food synthesizer. Although that television series is set 300 years in the future, the history of tea goes back 5,000 years, suggest that the popularity of tea is timeless.

According to legend, in 2737 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water, when some leaves from the tree blew into the water. Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the infusion that his servant had accidentally created. He went on to research the health benefits of tea.

Indian history of tea attributes its discovery to Prince Bodhi-Dharma, who founded the Zen school of Buddhism. In the year 520, he left India to preach Buddhism in China. To prove some Zen principles, he vowed to meditate for nine years without sleep. It is said that near the end of his meditation, he fell asleep. Upon awaking, he was so distraught that he cut off his eyelids, and threw them to the ground. Legend has it that a tea plant sprung up on the spot to sanctify his sacrifice.

The tea plant originated in regions around southwest China, Tibet and northern India. Chinese traders may have travelled throughout these regions often and encountered people chewing tea leaves for medicinal purposes.

It was not until the Tang dynasty (618-907), that drinking tea become widespread. We know this because the government imposed a tea tax on China’s national beverage.

A Buddhist monk, Saichō, is credited with introducing tea to Japan in the early Ninth century. While studying in China, Saichō discovered tea and brought back seeds to grow at his monastery. Over time, other monks followed suit, and soon small tea plantations sprouted up at secluded monasteries. However, due to the isolation of these plantations, tea’s popularity in Japan did not blossom until the 13th century.

The most popular method of preparing tea involved grinding the delicate green tea leaves into a fine powder using a stone mill. This powder, called Matcha in Japan, was a precursor to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Matcha is prepared with bamboo whisks and served in hand-crafted bowls.

It was not until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that tea was prepared by steeping the whole leaves in water, like it is today. Instead of compressing tea leaves into bricks, or grinding them in a stone mill, the tea leaves were dried, rolled, and then heated in iron woks to stop the oxidation process. The brewing process simply involved steeping the tea leaves in hot water, without the need for a whisk.

Explorers and missionaries brought tea to Europe. Around the Ninth century, references in Arab trade documents refer to the process of boiling bitter tea leaves. Later, Marco Polo (1254-1324) alludes to his discovery of tea in his travel writings about the East.

Dutch merchants entered the picture in 1610. That year, the first shipments of Japanese and Chinese tea arrived in Europe via ships charted by the Dutch East India Company. The popularity of tea rapidly spread to Amsterdam, Paris, and London, although its high price limited consumption. In Shakespeare’s time coffee was the beverage of choice for men who met in coffee houses, but wealthy women drank tea at home with friends.

And what about Captain Picard’s favourite hot beverage? It’s named after Charles Grey, a British earl of the 1800s. This quintessentially British tea is a black tea flavoured with oil from the rind of bergamot orange, a citrus fruit.