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A Cup of History - A Story Worth Sipping

A Cup of History - A Story Worth Sipping

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.

The journey of tea from China to Japan happened in the 8th century and was used for mostly religious reasons for many years. It is said that they were brought back to Japan by monks when they visited China. Soon after they started to grow tea plants themselves. Over time the culture embrace tea in its religious practices like Japanese Tea Ceremony which is where matcha originated. The monk Saisho is credited for being the first to bring tea leaves to Japan from China during the Heian period which lasted from 794 to 1185 BC. 

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. 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.

A 1727 treaty with China made the Russian town of Kiachta, on the border, the first major market for trade; throughout the first half of the nineteenth century Chinese merchants transported tea through Kiachta over great distances, thereby controlling the export. By 1862, a few of the Russian merchants made there way to a Chinese tea port and started building a tea empire by improving production methods, inventing tablet tea, and shortening the tea route by sending it on the Trans-Siberian Railroad—an excellent example of cooperation between merchants and the Russian government—using railroads to consolidate their influence over its colonies.

Over time, however, the magical leaves from the East gained favour with the upper echelons of British society. It was the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza that would prove to be a turning point in the history of tea in Britain. She was a Portuguese princess, and a tea addict, and it was her love of the drink that established tea as a fashionable beverage first at court, and then among the wealthy classes as a whole. Capitalising on this, the East India Company began to import tea into Britain, its first order being placed in 1664 - for 100lbs of China tea to be shipped from Java.

While India is now well-known for the high-quality tea it produces, and the innumerable cups of chai that Indians drink, the habit of drinking tea as a regular beverage did not originate here. And the story isn’t complete without the protagonist, Robert Fortune. Scottish horticulturalist, Robert Fortune, loved to travel. To explore tea plantations, he travelled to China. Later, due to his impressive research on Chinese tea saplings, the East India Company offered him a golden mission. This mission was to enter China and smuggle suitable tea saplings into India. In 1848, with the help of his servant Wang, Fortune smuggled plant samples from Hong Kong to Calcutta. Fortune’s adventure was a prime accelerator of tea plantations in India.

Even after the British left India, the tea industry did not stop. Since then, tea production in India has only increased to the point where they are one of the largest producers of tea in the world. There are over 10,000 gardens, and more than a million people are employed just for the production of tea. The nation's love affair with tea remains unwavering, from the lush gardens of Assam to the delicate slopes of Darjeeling, and the hilly landscapes of Nilgiri. India's tea culture has evolved, blending tradition with modernity, as cafes serving a wide variety of tea infusions have sprung up across the country. What more to say than the Nilgiri Orthodox tea has also been recently been registered as a Geographical Indication in India.