Object lesson No 22

Nice cup of tea? Like warm beer and appalling weather, it's a British institution. But tea drinking is a Chinese invention and its origins are as murky as a pot of stewed Lapsang Souchon. One story says an emperor Shen Nong chanced upon char (the slang comes from the Chinese word for tea, ch'a) some 5,000 years ago when leaves from the camellia sinensis plant fell into a pot of boiling water.

Dutch and Portuguese traders brought tea to Europe in the 1650s, and it was Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wife of Charles II, who made it a most fashionable infusion, holding tea parties for polite society. The popularity of high tea spread like butter on a freshly toasted crumpet, influencing etiquette and eating habits forever - and creating a demand for fine china tableware that put potteries on the map.

Soon it wasn't just the well bred who were brewing up. By the mid-1700s, tea was bringing refreshment to the lower orders, and as more and more people took to drinking boiled water with the natural antiseptic of tea's active ingredient tannin, there was a corresponding fall in the mortality rate. Our tea drinking habit has even been suggested as a vitl ingredient in the Industrial Revolution which allowed cities to develop while minimising the spread of waterborne diseases.

Now 80 per cent of people drink tea, each of us downing an average of three and a half cups every day. However you take it - black, green, milk and two sugars - the perfect cup of tea is a matter of taste. Last year, the British Standards Institute's attempts to quantify it in a 5,000-word treatise on Method for Preparation of a Liquor of Tea won an award for bad and pointless writing from Harvard university academics.

Tea preparation starts on the plantation. Like a wine, the site, slope and soil where it grows determine its taste, as does the way the harvested tips are dried, withered, shredded and blended.

And, while tea is still our favourite daytime tipple, its caffeine-toting cousin coffee is providing some hot competition. But we didn't give tea a special time of day, make it our solace in times of crisis and fight for the right to have breaks in which to drink it just to throw in the tea towel at the first sign of trouble from a bunch of roasted beans. Now, shall I put the kettle on?

Harvey McGavin


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