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Feb 23, 2021

Welcome to our new series talking about...tea! Join us every Tuesday for a new article!

Robert Fortune and the British Tea Heist

Robert Fortune (1813-1880) was a Scottish botanist and traveller. He was employed by both the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens and the Royal Horticultural Society. He is known for his extensive travels in China and Japan, where he discovered many plants that were unknown in Britain at the time. He collected plant specimens on his travels and introduced many new trees, shrubs, and flowers to European gardens. In total, he introduced approximately 250 species of ornamental plants. Some of these plants include Chamaerops fortunei (Chinese windmill palm), Weigela rosea (pink Weigela bush), and Jasminum nudiflorum (winter Jasmine). He was also very interested in agriculture and manufacturing processes, and he observed silk production and rice paper manufacturing in Japan. He published a number of books about his travels, including Three Years’ Wandering in the Northern Provinces of China (1847), A Residence Among the Chinese (1857), and Yedo and Peking (1863).

However, Robert Fortune is perhaps most well-known as the man who stole tea from China. In the 1800s, China was the only source of the world’s tea supply. Tea was very expensive at the time, and the British obtained it through trading opium with the Chinese. Eventually, China no longer wanted to trade their tea for opium. Since there were no longer any British products the Chinese wanted to buy, the British decided that their only option was to establish their own tea market.

In 1848, Robert Fortune was commissioned by the British East India Company to discover China’s tea production secrets and smuggle tea plants out of China. Fortune not only had to obtain the plants, he also had to obtain the knowledge required to teach British planters how to cultivate and produce high-quality tea. Since many areas of China were off-limits to foreigners at that time, this was no easy feat. Fortune faced many hardships during his mission including attacks by pirates and bandits, disease, and severe storms. On many occasions, he was even forced to disguise himself as a Chinese merchant!

However, Fortune did eventually accomplish his task of sneaking tea plants out of China and learning China’s trade secrets. The British began successfully growing their own tea in India, where there were suitable growing conditions for the plant. Some black teas from India include Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiri.

Robert Fortune’s escapades allowed Britain to end their reliance on China, and had a significant impact on the Chinese tea market. Maybe next time you have a cup of your favourite tea, you’ll remember Robert Fortune, the Scot who stole tea from China and changed its history forever. 

Robert Fortune. Image from Smithsonian Magazine.

February 16, 2021

How Tea Captured the World

How did tea become so popular around the world? From its beginnings in China over 2000 years ago, tea eventually spread to nearby Japan. Tea was first brought to Japan in the 12th century by the Japanese Buddhist monk Eisai, who brought tea seeds back to Japan with him after a trip to China. He began cultivating the tea plant at home, and later wrote a book called Drinking Tea for Health. The Japanese eventually developed their own tea ceremony, which is known as chanoyu or the “Japanese Way of Tea”.

Tea began to travel further when Zheng He, a Chinese diplomat, brought tea on his visits to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Africa. Portugal was the first European country to encounter tea when they began trading with China during the 16th century.

The first shipment of tea arrived in Europe in 1606. It landed in Lisbon, Portugal, and from there, Dutch ships carried it to France, the Netherlands, and beyond. Tea gradually became popular with both the Dutch and the French, and was later embraced by the Germans, Scandinavians, and Spanish. Russia was introduced to tea in approximately 1618, when they established their first trade route to China.

By 1652, tea had made its way to England. The tradition of tea drinking in England was popularized by King Charles II and his wife, Catherine de Braganza of Portugal. Since the Portuguese had been importing tea since the early 1600s, Catherine had grown up drinking tea. She brought a supply of tea with her when she travelled to England to marry Charles II in 1662. Her fondness for drinking tea made it a very fashionable beverage among the ladies of the English court. By the 18th century, tea had gained popularity across Europe. Tea was very expensive at this time, so it was mainly enjoyed by royal families and members of the upper class.

The first tea shipment to arrive in Canada was imported by the Hudson Bay Company in 1716, after spending more than a year in transport!

Since tea was very expensive to import from China, the British and Dutch sought a new source of tea outside of China. This project was spearheaded by the British East India Company, also known as the East India Trading Company. They began growing their own tea in India, where there were suitable growing conditions for the plant. Two famous black teas, Assam (1835) and Darjeeling (1841) are from the state of Assam and the region of Darjeeling in India. Since then, the British have developed more varieties of black tea, such as Earl Grey**. This tea is a blend of black tea leaves and oil of bergamot, and was named after Charles Grey, the second Earl of Grey, who served as Britain’s Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834.

So many blends are available today for us to enjoy, and thankfully tea is now available to everyone, not just the royals! Tea is something we often think so little about, yet it has such a rich history. Next time you brew a pot of tea, maybe you’ll think of Charles, the Earl of Grey. Or perhaps you’ll think of the first tea shipment to Canada in 1716, and the settlers who waited more than a year for a good cup of tea!

**Fun fact: Earl Grey tea was named after Charles Grey, the second Earl of Grey, who also served as Britain’s Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834. He was a tea enthusiast, and while serving as Prime Minister, he was presented with a special tea blend by a Mandarin envoy from China. It is reported that he loved the tea so much, he commissioned the major tea companies of Britain to recreate its flavour. Twinings was the first brand to create a blend to the Earl’s liking. Their tea was a black tea blend with bergamot oil. Since then, it has been known as “Earl Grey tea”!

February 9, 2021

The Origins of Tea

Have you ever wondered which country drinks the most tea? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the United Kingdom! The country with the highest tea consumption per capita is Turkey. It’s followed by Morocco, Ireland, Mauritania, and finally the United Kingdom in fifth place.

So now we know who drinks the most tea, but where does the tea come from? China is the world’s largest producer of tea, followed by India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Turkey.

Did you know, China is not only the world’s largest producer of tea, it was also the first country to discover and cultivate tea? The Chinese have been growing and drinking tea for more than 2000 years! However, tea was not always used as a drink. The plant was originally used in cooking and as a medicinal herb. It was first consumed as a drink by the people in the Sichuan (or Szechuan) province of China, and this practice spread to other parts of China during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD). 

From the Han Dynasty to the Mid-Tang Dynasty, people boiled the raw tea leaves with spices. Later in the Tang Dynasty, the spices were replaced with salt. During this period the first tea ceremony was created, which greatly influenced Chinese culture. After the development of the formal tea ceremony, the first book ever written about tea, The Classic of Tea, was written by tea master Lu Yu. He is often referred to as the Patron Saint of Tea or the Sage of Tea in Chinese culture. Over time, the traditions began to change, and by the Ming Dynasty people were brewing their tea leaves using a similar method to what we see now – steeping the dried tea leaves in hot water, without adding spices or salt.

Prior to this period, people typically brewed their tea in the same vessel that they drank it from. Usually it was brewed in a bowl, and the person would hold the bowl in both hands to drink the tea. During the Ming Dynasty, a small bowl with a lid was developed to use for brewing the tea leaves separately. The lid was used to keep the tea leaves inside the bowl when pouring out the tea. This vessel is known as a gaiwan and is still used to brew tea in China today. After the gaiwan was developed, the Taiwanese developed the fairness cup. The fairness cup is essentially a small pitcher. The tea would be poured from the gaiwan into the fairness cup, and then from the fairness cup into each teacup. This method of brewing and serving tea is still used in some versions of the Gong Fu tea ceremony in China, although others now use a small clay teapot in place of the gaiwan.

From China, tea eventually spread to the rest of the world and became the popular beverage that is it today. New ways of serving tea were developed, such as the modern tea set that many of us are familiar with. Many countries also developed their own tea practices, such as the Japanese tea ceremony and the British tradition of afternoon tea.

Join us next week when we explore more of tea’s history and how tea captured the world!

February 2, 2021

What is Tea?

What is tea, exactly? Many of us drink tea daily, but don’t actually know much about it. There are many different kinds of tea available today, but did you know that all tea comes from the same plant? Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, is what all tea is made from. Whether the tea is green or black, it’s all the same plant!

There are actually six different kinds of tea that can be made from the camellia sinensis plant. Some of these are probably familiar to you, and others might be new. The two most common types are black tea and green tea. Black tea is what most people in North America drink, typically with milk and/or sugar added. Popular kinds of black tea include Orange Pekoe, Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Chai, and Assam.

Green tea has many health benefits and has been slowly gaining popularity in North America over the years. You can commonly find green tea with different flavours added, such as jasmine, ginger, or lemon. Some people add honey to their green tea to sweeten it, but people typically drink green tea without milk.

There is also a specific kind of green tea that you may have seen popping up in your supermarket lately…matcha tea! Matcha tea is a traditional green tea from Japan, but is now becoming very popular in North America. Unlike other kinds of green tea, instead of brewing the tea leaves in hot water and removing them before drinking, the tea leaves are ground into a powder and are mixed into the hot water. Matcha is also typically served with a froth on top. Traditionally, the froth was achieved by whisking the matcha powder vigorously into the water with a bamboo whisk. Nowadays, you can still whisk your matcha tea if you like, or you can use a small frother instead. That is what I like to do! The Japanese traditionally drink matcha tea without any additions such as milk or sugar, but many North Americans sweeten it to taste. Some North Americans also like to add milk before whisking the matcha into a froth. This is known as a “matcha latte”.

Black tea and green tea are only the tip of the iceberg! There are many more varieties to choose from, including white tea, yellow tea, oolong tea, and dark or pu’er tea.

White tea is very light in colour and has a delicate flavour. It’s not as common as green and black tea, but you can usually find a few varieties in supermarkets, and certainly in most tea shops. Popular kinds of white tea include the Silver Needle and White Peony varieties. There are also many white tea blends available, which can also contain green tea. A good white tea blend to start with is Buddha’s Blend from David’s Tea – one of my personal favourites, and it smells divine!

Yellow tea is a type of tea that many people are not familiar with. I had never heard of it myself until I took a tea-tasting class at the Royal Botanical Gardens. When this variety of tea is brewed, the result is a bright yellow-coloured tea. It has a slightly stronger taste than white tea, but in my experience it’s not quite as strong as green tea. Yellow tea is difficult to find outside of China. However, it can be found through some specialty tea suppliers, and is lovely to try if you can get your hands on it!

The next kind of tea is oolong. In China, where it was first produced, the word “oolong” translates to “black dragon”. Oolong tea is dark in colour and people may mistake it for a black tea, but it’s actually its own special kind of tea. It has to do with the amount of oxidation, or exposure to air, that the tea leaves experience during their processing. Green tea is only slightly oxidized and has a lighter flavour, while black tea is fully oxidized which gives it its dark, rich flavour. Oolong tea falls somewhere in the middle. Similar to black tea, there are many different kinds of oolong tea available.

The final kind of tea is known as dark or pu’er (also spelled “pu’erh”) tea. This is the most oxidized kind of tea. The leaves are very dark in colour and are actually fermented after they are dried. Pu’er tea is often described as having a very rich, earthy flavour. Pu’er is available in loose-leaf form, but the leaves can also be pressed into hard round disks or rectangular bricks, which are known as tea cakes.

What about herbal tea? Herbal teas such as chamomile, peppermint, rooibos, and fruit teas are not actually tea. The proper term for these is a tisane, or an herbal infusion. According to tea masters, only tea that is made from the camellia sinensis plant can be considered true tea.

But even though they’re not technically tea, they’re still tasty drinks! So many herbal tisanes also have wonderful health benefits. Personally, I love a nice chamomile or peppermint in the evening! What’s your favourite kind of tea?

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