Samui Wining & Dining
Who’s for Tea?

High tea, low tea – or just a nice cuppa?


16 You can blame it on the Portuguese and the Dutch – to begin with, at least. But they were closely followed by the Spanish, the English and the French – and then everybody was at it. Yes, as soon people realised that you didn’t drop-off the flat edge of the world when you got to the horizon, then the race was on. Dozens of men crammed themselves into spaces not much bigger than today’s average bungalow and set off in a vague southerly direction, hopefully, to return some years later, far richer. Exploration and trading had suddenly become big business.

    You have to keep in mind that before the late 16th century, the world was a huge place, and trade and commerce between countries (other than landmasses like Europe) didn’t exist. Although the exception here is the Roman Empire. That spread throughout Europe and into Northern Africa, taking with it items such as exotic spices, citrus fruits and different types of poultry, in addition to their advanced technology. But this was merely a drop in the ocean compared with the flood that was the 16th century.

      Now, tea, as we know and love it today, in those times had already been brewing for quite a while. The first references to this stimulating beverage occur way back 2,737 years before Christ, when the Second Emperor of China is credited with enjoying the results of wild tea leaves which accidentally blew into his soup bowl. And if you believe that ... ! But, anyway, such an infusion was duly recorded – although it took, roughly, until about the time that the Romans were marching round Europe for the beverage to really catch on in China. It was considered medicinal and restorative, and valued for its healing properties. And, over the next few hundred years, it gradually spread throughout most of Asia and India, too.


Even today, ‘tea’ is used daily in
millions of British households to refer
to the evening meal, as in,
“What’s for tea, mum?”


       And, so, let’s look at the trading frenzy that was Europe in the 17th century. In 1610, the Dutch brought back green tea from Japan and, not long after, it became fashionable in the Dutch Royal Court. It was hugely expensive, but tea-drinking parties became the rage amongst the upper classes. And shortly after, it migrated to England. But ...

       But, in England, coffee-drinking had already become firmly established. In 1650, the first coffee shop had opened in London and, over the next few years, every fashionable tavern was serving it as well as ale. Plus coffee-houses had sprung up everywhere. However, in 1662 the English king married a tea-drinking Portuguese bride – and suddenly it was the thing to drink tea! All the coffee-shops started selling it – taverns, too – in spite of its high price. And sales of alcohol dropped while all of England guzzled tea. The government, annoyed at losing tax revenue, kept increasing the tea tax until it became, in the mid-18th century, an enormous 119%. At which point tea smuggling suddenly became very lucrative indeed. Because of the profits involved, tea was ‘cut’ with all sorts of adulterants: dried willow leaves, thyme, liquorice, and even old, used tea leaves. Something had to be done, when, suddenly, the taxation was reduced to 9%. And, almost overnight, everything settled down again.

       In the glory that was the British Empire back in the 1800s, dinner was traditionally served at 8:00 pm. However, Anna Stanhope, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, continually felt faint in the late afternoon and, in 1822, began something that was later to become an essential English tradition. To start with, her servants secretively sneaked her a pot of tea and some pastries, at around 4:00 pm. But it didn’t take long before this attracted the attention of her equally hungry friends. And soon the Duchess was boldly issuing social invitations to join her for ‘high tea’ – which by now included cakes, pastries and sandwiches – all arranged formally on a high dinner table. (As opposed to ‘low tea’, which occurred sitting informally with your plate of nibbles on your lap, and your teacup on a nearby low ‘coffee table’.) The practice of inviting friends ‘for tea’ was soon echoed by aspiring hostess all over the country. And, more to the point, the ‘working classes’ adopted this, and ‘tea’ became the main meal of the day, in the late afternoon or early evening. Even today, ‘tea’ is used daily in millions of British households to refer to the evening meal, as in, “What’s for tea, mum?” And the word ‘dinner’ often means the mid-day meal ... ‘school dinners’, for example. Mad dogs and Englishmen ...

       But, I digress. Tea – the beverage – is the instigator of traditions and customs all over the world. Strictly speaking, there are just three sorts of tea, and they all belong to the plant known as camellia sinensis. There’s China tea, Indian tea, and the third is the hybrids between them – although they can all be sub-divided into white, green, and black varieties. They all contain tannin and caffeine, plus beneficial and healthy antioxidants, and also natural fluoride. But take a look in any modern supermarket. There are a thousand different sorts of ‘tea’ of every colour, type, flavour and blend – except that they’re not tea.

       Almost every herbal infusion is now generally described as ‘tea’, and that’s just what these are – herbal drinks ... whatever their advantages and benefits might be.

       And all of this doesn’t even start to touch on the social and spiritual weight of the rituals and ceremonies that Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan and Russia have created around the humble cup of tea!

       We’re a long time and a long way from the little ships that braved the uncharted expanses of the oceans – but their legacy is still with us. Those bold adventurers changed our way of life forever. But, whether your tea experience is social or spiritual, I’ll leave you with the ‘infusive’ words of the 9th century Japanese Zen Poet and Tea Master – He K’Oi. I think he must have been smiling when he said, “No matter where or how you follow your path, don’t forget to take the tea.” I’ve heard worse advice!


Rob De Wet


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