There is something about the ritual of tea making. More than dunking a bag in a mug and waiting impatiently for the kettle to boil, tea is an intoxicating unfurling of oxygen infused leaves, rich in aroma and flavour.
Tea is calming, restorative and one of the few popular elements of our daily diet that actually helps more than it harms. In Britain tea is seen as a solution to woes and worries, in China it is thought to be a life elixir. India’s tea history is fraught with political and cultural tragedies whilst in Morocco the making of tea is a ceremony.
From these tiny leaves great tales have grown and an internationally observed practice has thrived.
In our constantly changing, ever evolving world there are few traditions that have survived mass modernisation to be passed down through the ages, but the ritual of taking time for tea is something of an institution, even further afield than on our British Isles. Once thought to be the essence of Englishness, tea is one of the oldest imports, with roots across the globe. Recently, there has been something of a a tea revival with Afternoon Tea and well-stocked tea selections being an established aspect of contemporary cafes, bistros and restaurants but the history of tea leaves stretches back to the earliest civilisations. The focus on wellbeing and healthy living brought the antioxidant prowess of green tea into the contemporary spotlight whilst herbal infusions and a library of varieties are now widely available, each one boasting unique and attractive healing properties for all manner of modern ailments. Tea is the original superfood and now has a superstar status but where did it all begin and which country can claim to be the true tea masters?
All the tea in China
Like the art of reading tea leaves, there is much mystery and interpretation surrounding the exact origins of tea drinking. The most widely accepted narrative is that the lauded Chinese sage Shennong was the first to experiment with leaves being brewed over water warmed over a fire, in approximately 2723BC. In Chinese mythology, Shennong was the founding father of Chinese medicine and is considered one of the Three Sovereigns – cultural icons that hold a similar status to the Greek Gods in terms of their influence on Chinese society and significance within the empire’s oral history. Shennong can be likened to an alchemist, herbologist and guru in the sense that he experimented with land-grown produce to understand what we’d today recognise as holistic, wellness inspired practices. His decision to drink water that had been infused with leaf fragments from a broken twig went on to become one of the most observed practices of all time – tea drinking. However it could also be noted that Shennong also believed that horse urine was an effective preservative and humanity owe a debt of gratitude that only one of his preferred beverages was internationally adopted as a symbol of hospitality!
A fascinating maverick, Shennong’s relationship with tea adapted as his primitive pharmaceutical efforts expanded. As with many mystics, Shennong recognised the relationship between naturally grown produce and human health. He was valiant and somewhat imprudent in his efforts to uncover the secrets of all that grew around him. Eating hundreds of plants, seeds and berries for his work, tea became a vital aspect of his own health as he often found the ground leaves of what we now recognise as tea plants to be the antidote to the many dangerous side effects of his diet of discovery. As he began to learn which herbs and leaves were edible and safe, Shennong taught the local people how to prepare these elements to benefit from their health properties. It was under his tutorage that the phenomenon of tea drinking spread throughout China, particularly when Emperors and men of nobility learned that green tea was thought to enhance longevity – which one can imagine would be very attractive for anyone seeking to extend their reign as long as possible.
Shennong’s story ends perhaps predictably, he was poisoned by a toxic yellow berry. His legend lived on however, and the life-enhancing properties of tea that he’d researched and recorded in his life, caught the attention of Chinese nobility who sought vitality and longevity to maintain their stature in society. It was then that tea became a symbol of wealth and health in China, available almost exclusively to the upper classes with the leaves picked and prepared by expert herbologists. The taste for tea spread throughout China, with a vast variety of leaves being used to quench the thirst for this most intriguing beverage. Centuries later tea became a worldwide commodity and so began the international tea trade.
Get the taste for it:
Amanfayun, Hangzhou, China.
Surrounded by tea plantations and bamboo groves, Amanfayun is a spiritual sanctuary informed by Chinese tradition and Buddhist monastic culture. Explore this centuries-old village, restored using ancient techniques, at your own pace. One of China’s principal tea regions, Hangzhou is home to a number of distinguished growers, as the in-house tea master can explain over an afternoon tasting at the Tea House. Overlooking a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in the heart of China’s silk making region, and surrounded by the tranquility of Buddhist temples, Amanfayun is an exceptional setting to escape, indulge and renew. Five-star facilities and the unblemished beauty of nature and a time untouched by modern life, this is where the ancient spirituality of tea and contemporary luxury gently blend.
The East India Company
For decades, China held the monopoly on tea, supplying western civilisations and parts of the southern hemisphere, such as the newly colonised Australia, with their favourite drink. For the most part Britain boasted clean water and good sanitation but tea had greatly improved the health of the general population immensely. The boiling water required to unlock flavours from the leaves served the dual purpose of cleansing the water which in turn provided a more hygienic refreshment than other sources. For this reason, the British government wanted to supply tea in greater amounts, in addition to the vast financial incentives they knew tea could offer. Importing tea from China was an expensive and lengthy process and so it became paramount for Britain to be able to source tea from within its own ever expanding Empire.
In 1823 the fate of the global tea trade would change forever. Distinguished Scotsman Robert Bruce (not to be confused with his namesake The King of Scots) was travelling in British-owned Northeastern India, today known as the Assam region, when he was introduced to a local tribe by a local merchant named Maniram Datta-Barua. Bruce watched the tribe prepare their meals and, crucially, a warmed beverage made from crushed Camellia Sinensis plant. The tribe’s tea making ritual involved plucking the tender leaves of the plant, drying them in the sun and leaving them uncovered overnight to absorb the morning dew for three days. After being placed in a bamboo tube the leaves were heated over a fire and added to water for consumption. Bruce sampled this most elaborate concoction and found the flavor to be similar, even finer, than that of Chinese tea.
Bruce gathered Camellia Sinensis before departing and had them tested upon his return to Calcutta. They were found to be a near exact match to the plant varieties used in the production of Chinese tea. Robert Bruce died in 1830 and his brother Charles continued his work, hoping to bring tea to the empire and challenge China’s domination on the trade. Fearing the newly discovered Indian tea would be a disappointment to the West, now so accustomed to the taste of Chinese varieties, a secondary plan was put in place to break the metaphorical Wall of China on tea production. A most illicit master plan was developed to smuggle tea seeds out of China and planted in India’s vast expanses of agricultural land. Perhaps predictably, the change in conditions didn’t suit the Chinese seeds and the tea plant was unable to grow in Indian soil. Back to plan B for Bruce. The traditional Indian variety uncovered by Bruce in 1823 was slowly introduced to Britain in what would now be considered something of a social and marketing experiment. Packaged in fine, decorative tins and sold in reputable fine food stores such as Fortnum and Mason in London, the Indian tea was offered as an upper-class alternative to the widely available Chinese varieties. The advertising psychology was successful and Indian Assam became the tea of choice for London’s wealthy society and thus an aspirational product throughout the land. The Empire’s mantra of ‘Buy British’ pushed Indian tea to the fore, overtaking the Chinese as Britain’s preferred tea variety. Fortunately, the Assam region’s large landscapes could support the increased demand and a tea boom was well underway in what was then thought of as the ‘civilised world’. The appetite for so-called exotic Indian tea was such that the trade grew to incorporate leaves from the Darjeeling, Oolong and Elaichi (cardamom) varieties, thereby expanding into new territories and extending the Empire’s hold on India’s valuable trade.
Whilst the East India Company’s tea production employed local planters and improved India’s infrastructure, the economic policies of the Empire were rigged in favour of the rich, British rulers. Working long hours in labour intensive roles, out in the elements with no health and safety regulations, the Indian workers were mistreated, malnourished and shockingly underpaid. Indian tea was being sold for great profit throughout the Empire but the money was never returned to the Assam region or its inhabitants. So damaging were the practices of farming the tea leaves, when the Empire left India the Assam region was almost devoid of nutrients and the ground damaged beyond repair. The stain of the Empire still lingers within India to such an extent that the British Royal Family boycotted a trip to India’s former tea plantations, as an act of solidarity with the mistreated workers that were victims of the Empire’s blind greed. Today, the Tea Board of India regulates the trade of tea and ensures fair pay for employees. Labour welfare is certified by law and smaller independent tea growers are supported by government funding to ensure the Indian tea trade no longer leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Get the taste for it:
Ananda in the Himalayas, India
Capturing the flavour of Ceylon
Get the taste for it:
Ceylon Tea Trails, Sri Lanka
Steeped in Moroccan magic
Get the taste for it:
Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech
Surrounded by 20 hectares of landscaped olive groves and with over 100’000 roses in the private gardens, Mandarin Oriental Marrakech is the ultimate escape from the every day. Take traditional Moroccan mint tea in Le Salon Berbère – where Moorish architecture and contemporary luxury transport your senses to a place untouched by time. Spend your days in the souks, seeking out your own Moroccan tea set, or lounging by the expansive pool, indulging in charismatic culture and decadent luxury.
For more information or to make an enquiry, please call our expert Travel Consultants on 01244 897 578 or visit elegantresorts.co.uk.