Tea, anyone?

I have just been writing another episode of The Story of Eve. To remind or to inform you readers, The Story of Eve is part of The Flood Novels which began with AWOL The Story of Adam.

In this episode, Mother, Evie and their little group reach a sort of refuge and spend their first night in an old underground station. In the morning Evie is presented with breakfast, a hot cup of tea. She has never drunk anything like this before and it burns her mouth. Tea, or T as Evie calls it, belongs to the old world.

The birth of tea in China

Tea is often thought of as being a quintessentially British drink, and we have been drinking it for over 350 years. But in fact the history of tea goes much further back.

The story of tea begins in China. 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. The tree was a Camellia sinensis, and the resulting drink was what we now call tea.

tea was first introduced to Japan, by Japanese Buddhist monks

Japanese tea garden

It is impossible to know whether there is any truth in this story. But tea drinking certainly became established in China many centuries before it had even been heard of in the west. Containers for tea have been found in tombs dating from the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) but it was under the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), that tea became firmly established as the national drink of China. It became such a favourite that during the late eighth century a writer called Lu Yu wrote the first book entirely about tea, the Ch’a Ching, or Tea Classic. It was shortly after this that tea was first introduced to Japan, by Japanese Buddhist monks who had travelled to China to study. Tea drinking has become a vital part of Japanese culture, as seen in the development of the Tea Ceremony, which may be rooted in the rituals described in the Ch’a Ching.

The growth of tea in Europe

So at this stage in the history of tea, Europe was rather lagging behind. In the latter half of the sixteenth century there are the first brief mentions of tea as a drink among Europeans. These are mostly from Portuguese who were living in the East as traders and missionaries. But although some of these individuals may have brought back samples of tea to their native country, it was not the Portuguese who were the first to ship back tea as a commercial import. This was done by the Dutch, who in the last years of the sixteenth century began to encroach on Portuguese trading routes in the East. By the turn of the century they had established a trading post on the island of Java, and it was via Java that in 1606 the first consignment of tea was shipped from China to Holland. Tea soon became a fashionable drink among the Dutch, and from there spread to other countries in continental western Europe, but because of its high price it remained a drink for the wealthy.

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