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Fancy a cuppa?

The tea habit has rooted itself as a vital part of our social life. Victoria Neumark looks at the story of tea an tea-drinking traditions around the world

Make tea not war" proclaimed placards in London at the recent march against war in Iraq. "Don't make war, make a nice cup of tea and have a little sit down," suggested a hand-lettered variant. Could anything seem more quintessentially British? Tea, the "cup that soothes each aching pain.. steals not from heart, steals not from brain", as the old poem has it, seems as much a part of the fabric of our national life as rainy days and football matches. Yet it was not always so. Why, even the idea of a sweet little afternoon something - ginger cake, say, with a ham sandwich or two, cucumber for the refined, scones with home-made jam, ... la Ratty and Mole in The Wind in the Willows, to be had with lashings of invigorating amber fluid - is a Victorian invention.

The tea plant itself is deeply exotic: imported from China as a 17th-century luxury, spread to India, then Ceylon and Africa by the British Empire, grown on tropical hillsides lashed by rainstorms. In Japan, the tea ceremony is a spiritual exercise; in Tibet, Buddhist deities are offered the national drink of salted, buttered tea. Worldwide, more than one billion cups a day are drunk.

In its Chinese homeland, tea, or ch'a, has been cultivated for at least two millennia: a drink made from leaves gathered from wild tea trees (t'u) has been used for much longer. Under the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), however, tea-drinking became elevated to an art. Lu Yu wrote the founding treatise, Ch'a Ching, the Book of Tea (c780 AD), which synthesised the philosophical outlook of Chinese philosophers Lao Tzu and Confucius with details of tea production and consumption.

Myriads of art-forms sprang up to celebrate excellence in tea: lacquer bowls and caddies, fine porcelain pots and cups, calligraphic eulogies, poems and paintings of gatherings. Nor were the social and medical benefits overlooked: courtiers held tasting contests, hermits used tea to keep awake when meditating, gluttons dosed themselves with it to cure over-indulgence.

One emperor, Kiasung (1101-24), spent so much time on tea matters, including writing a treatise on the subject, that he neglected the defence of his realm, was captured in his own courtyard and died in exile without a cheering cup.

Early Chinese tea was green tea, compacted into hard cakes that were boiled to make an infusion. In the succeeding Sung dynasty (907-1280 AD), it was broken down further into powder, which was then compressed into a tablet from which tea-brewers shaved flakes to whip into a delicate frothy tea, which they drank from dark glazed ware.

When the Ming invaders took over the Dragon Throne of the Middle Kingdom, as China was known, they steeped tea leaves in pots, and drank from thin white cups. During this time, black teas were developed: special varieties that were found to alter and deepen in flavour if left to oxidise after being dried and rolled.

Camellia sinensis is a shiny-leaved evergreen that can have several "flushes" a year. When the young leaves are picked, more quickly sprout.

Modern growers expect two or three leaves and a growing bud to be picked - older leaves are duller and coarser in taste. Each crop of leaves, which must be picked by hand, produces a slightly different taste: tea, like grapes, varies with the soil, climate and cultivation of its "terroir" (locality).

The art of tea production lies in the tree cultivation and also in the control of the process of drying or withering, curling or crushing (now often done mechanically), fermentation (nothing to do with alcohol but letting the leaves stand until they oxidise), and firing or super-drying leaves till they rustle. It is skilled intensive work, and many campaigners feel it is underpaid (see Green tea is produced by lightly steaming the freshly cut leaf, while for black tea the leaves are left to oxidise.

By the 16th century, the Venetians, Portuguese and Dutch had established the sea routes to China. In 1569, Giambatista Ramusio, secretary to Venice's governing council, reported travellers' tales of a Chinese drink:

"One or two cups of this decoction removes fever, headache, stomach-ache, pain in the side or in the joints, and it should be taken as hot as you can bear it".

Tea, spices and silk were traded into Lisbon and Amsterdam and then, after the formation of the East India Company in 1601, into England. In 1615, one of "John Company's" early agents put in an order in Macao for the "best sort of chaw"; by 1832, shortly before its abolition, the East India Company was trading 3.5 million pounds(more than 1.5 million kilograms) of tea a year from Hong Kong and more than 40 million pounds (18 million kg) from China as a whole.

Like many aspects of British life, tea got its real boost from royal favour. Thomas Garraway proclaimed its "virtues" in his London coffee house (a plaque marks the spot in the City of London) it could cure 24 disabilities and "preserved in perfect health until extreme Old Age" - and sourced some "tubbs of tea" in 1664 for a present to Charles II which went down a treat and orders were placed - tea was the drink of the moment.

In 1683, there were more than 2,000 coffee houses in London, where all day a gentleman could nurse one cup of tea or coffee while reading and talking - hence their name "penny universities". These places were the engine-rooms for England's subsequent world domination: Jonathan's coffee house became the Stock Exchange, Lloyd's a merchant bank, Twining's an international merchant. Coffee houses, the focus of commercial and political activities, hummed with business. Customers in a hurry dropped a little extra in a box marked TIPS ("to insure prompt service").

Dr Johnson (1709-84), author and compiler of the first English dictionary (1755) called himself "a hardened and shameless tea drinker who for 20 years has diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant, whose kettle has scarcely time to cool, who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight and with tea welcomes the morning".

Dr Johnson drank tea out of a special pint tankard at the Sultaness' Head, but called it "a liquor not proper for the lower class of people". Yet, while upper-class males gulped down their "tay" at the clubby coffee houses, women from Queen Anne down brewed their own, mixing it, according to 18th-century writers such as Congreve and Pope, with more than a dash of scandal over the clinking of silver spoons. Tea equated to civility; it was locked away in caddies to which the mistress of the house held the key.

Of course, everything percolates downwards. Tea gardens soon started up, offering pleasant green environments in which to stroll, listen to music, watch players, drink tea and eat snacks, and, above all, meet members of the opposite sex. Perhaps the most famous was Vauxhall, where Becky Sharp, heroine of William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, wanders, semi-innocently, in 1812.

Tea became linked to immortality and John Wesley, founder of Methodism, thundered against its extravagance. Once a tea-drinker himself, he had found that giving up tea ended his headaches and hand-trembling; he urged his flock to do likewise. However, later in his career, Josaiah Wedgewood donated Wesley one of his handsome teapots for Sunday breakfast parties before chapel. Tea "cheers but does not inebriate".

For as industrialisation produced bigger and bigger cities, reformers saw the extravagance of tea pale into insignificance beside the social evils of alcohol. The government adjusted its fiscal take, in the light of widespread crippling drunkenness among the poor. For most of the 18th century the duty on tea was almost 200 per cent, creating a smugglers' paradise for an exclusive product. Smuggling in fact introduced poor rural folk to tea-drinking, especially "smouch" or re-used tea leaves, but beer was cheaper. So when Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act of 1784, reducing tea duty to 12.5 per cent, he boosted the tea trade from five million to 13 million pounds (five million kilograms) in a year.

From tirades against the evils of unbridled tea drinking and, dependence on "slops" (19th-century slang for the messy business of tea), the temperance lobby began hymning the praises of tea, some even going so far as to say that "teetotal" derives from "tea". Perhaps the most important step came around 1840 when Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861) decided that she would cure "that sinking feeling" which hit midway between posh lunch and posher dinner with a light repast of bread and butter, "niceties" such as cakes and tarts, and tea. Tastes had grown more sophisticated. At first, China tea was sold as Singlo and Bohea (green and black teas respectively).

These quickly became names for the coarsest types of leaf. Finer black teas came on the market; known as "Congou" from "kung-fu" which means hard work and skill, they included names such as suchong and keemun, which are still used today. Numerous varieties of green tea included gunpowder, which looked like ball shot; hysons, which could be scented; and oolongs, which were a mixture of black and green.

Twankeys (as in Aladdin's Widow Twankey) were popular. Though not as rarefied as the elaborate swillings, sniffings and inhalings of Chinese tea-tasting ceremonies, tea-drinking held its place throughout society, appeared in works of literature and art, drove the manufacture of fine china and linen tablecloths, silverware and furniture, baked goods and kitchen design.

It was also intimately involved in Britain's growing empire. In 1773, during the reign of George III, Yankee rebels refused to pay a tax of threepence in the pound to the Crown. They saw tea as a symbol of repression and dumped the property of the East India Company in the sea off New England. The Boston Tea Party was the merest hitch in tea's takeover of the UK. Imperial Britain turned to India and tea turned with it.

Tea was introduced to India from China in 1774 by the East India Company.

The Chinese bushes did not grow well and it was only when a species of native bush (with larger leaves) was discovered in Assam that cultivation took off, with the first consignment auctioned in London in 1839. By the 1850s, Indian tea was making money and young adventurers came out from the UK to make their fortunes in the hard business - known as "tea fever".

Today, tea is one of the largest employers in India and one of its leading exports. Half a billion cups a day are drunk, mostly in the form of chai, or tea boiled up with condensed milk, unrefined sugar and spices such as cardamom, cloves and ginger. Where each Chinese garden's crop of tea is savoured for its unique flavour, efficient Indian plantations feed a public which likes the security of known blends: Sainsbury's Red Label, Tetley's finest. India tea is graded according to size and quality. Whole leaves are Pekoe, broken ones Broken Pekoe, fragments Fannings and the rest is Dust (not floor sweepings as generally said). The best tea contains the highest proportion of young buds, especially if they have golden tips. Such tea is called Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe or TGFOP. These teas are sold for specialist tastes today; the money is in blended teas, such as those developed by Thomas Lipton.

In 1882, Thomas Lipton bought plantations in Ceylon when coffee businesses had gone bust due to bad weather. Acting according to his own motto - "Work hard, deal honestly, be enterprising, exercise careful judgement, advertise freely but judiciously" - Lipton (1850-1931) was one of the first businessmen to develop brand-name advertising. He used humour and promotion, sponsoring big tea parties, music-hall songs ("Tea for Two" anyone?). By the end of the century he controlled 10 per cent of the world's tea trade and had expanded into the US, persuading US citizens that iced tea with a slice of lemon was just the ticket. Soon after, in 1908, a New York tea merchant, Thomas Sullivan, invented the teabag.

Tea became a modern drink. But in the Far East, tea was timeless. The Japanese have a saying "peacefulness through a bowl of tea" and the Japanese tea ceremony, chanoyu ("the hot water for tea"), can last several hours. Drinking the tea is the least of it. Tea is symbolic. Tea-plant seeds were originally brought to Japan by Yeisei (1141-1215), founder of Zen Buddhism, who had seen the value of tea in China in enhancing religious meditation. As a result, he is known as the Father of Tea in Japan. Tea received almost instant imperial sponsorship and spread rapidly from the royal court and monasteries throughout Japanese society. Special forms of architecture to house the ceremony, special forms of dress, special utensils, bowls, cups and lacquer boxes were developed, as well as poetry and songs. For a time, the ceremony's original purity was swamped by ostentation, quite alien to the spirit of quiet contemplation. But reformers like Rikkyu (1521-1591) set a template still in use today.

Through his influence, the Shogun (prime minister) Toyotomi Hideyoshi became Japan's greatest patron of the "art of tea". A brilliant general, strategist, poet, and artist , Hideyoshi declared that tea itself was the ultimate gift, so that even warlords paused for tea before battles.

Pharmacologically, tea, coffee and chocolate contain blends of the same drugs: caffeine, theobromine and theophylline. All three substances are of the class called methylxanthines. The average cup of tea has half as much caffeine as a cup of coffee, with loose teas containing somewhat more and green teas slightly less (but not as much less as generally promoted).

Still, caffeine is a stimulant, and as the old Chinese saying goes, five cups make you equal to a god (more and your heart starts to flutter). Some people think that the tannin, which stains cups and teeth, and polyphenols (active biochemical compounds) in tea slow down the rate of caffeine absorption more in tea than in coffee. Most people find that they can drink much more tea than coffee before they feel jittery. Caffeine is sometimes used to treat headaches as it contracts blood vessels in the brain.

Conversely, suddenly withdrawing can make blood-vessels in the brain expand unexpectedly, causing headache.

Tea is not that bad for you, though, with claims for the wonders of green tea abounding. Mostly these claims centre on the wonders of polyphenols. A cup of green tea usually contains about 300 to 400mg of polyphenols and 50 to 100mg of caffeine. The oxidisation process which produces black tea is said to render inactive many of the beneficial polyphenols. Tea bags have been used to heal wounds, to cure puffiness round the eyes and as a poultice for dry hair.

Tea-drinkers live longer, though whether their longevity is compounded by crumpets and a nice slice of Aunty Jo's fruit cake has not yet been tested.

Perhaps many of us, in the happy world of "just one more cup then", feel like Sydney Smith, 19th-century essayist (1771-1845): "Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!";NIPgt; edukeepingfitARTICLEtea.HTMwww.stashtea.comwww.teahyakka.comwww.nobleharb or.comteacaffeine.htmlFurther readingThe Gunpowder Gardens by Jason Goodwin (Penguin pound;7.99)

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