Tea is made from the leaves of the CAMELIA SINENSIS - known as the tea bush. The finest tea comes from the top two leaves and bud from each shoot of tea bushes grown at an elevation of more than 4,000 feet. America is enjoying a newly found love affair with tea, and many different teas are available. Strictly speaking, herbals, tisanes and infusions are not really tea, because they contain no camellia leaves.
The story starts in China nearly 5,000 years ago, when EMPEROR SHEN NUNG, an avid herbalist, was said to be conducting an experiment one day. He had a fire going with twigs from a tea bush, and it is said that the leaves blew upwards and fell into his pot of boiling water. He just had to taste the brew, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The origins of Afternoon Tea are in the early 1800s. ANNA, the DUCHESS OF BEDFORD used to get a bit peckish in the afternoon. Dinner in the homes of the upper classes was at 8 or 9 o'clock, which was a long time from lunch. She asked her footman to bring her bread and butter and tea every afternoon.
A few decades earlier, the EARL OF SANDWICH, a keen gambler, used to order food so he would not have to leave the gaming tables. He would ask for meat tucked between two slices of bread. This soon caught on, because other gamblers would ask for "THE SAME AS SANDWICH."
Anna, our duchess with the appetite, decided putting a filling between her bread and butter was tastier, but she wanted sandwiches she could eat like a lady - small and dainty. She added cakes and other sweets and began inviting friends to join her. The idea spread and evolved over time into the social custom of women visiting each other for Afternoon Tea.
Tea and sugar were extremely expensive commodities in the 1800s. Tea was kept in a locked Tea Caddy. and the lady of the house had control of the key! At first, the hostess would always sit at the head of the table, pour the tea and add the milk and sugar, so she was in control of the amount consumed. Then it became a way to demonstrate wealth, by having servants to pour the tea, and allowing the guests to add their own milk and sugar. This showed that the hostess was wealthy enough to buy as much as she wanted. These days, if someone (man or woman) asks "SHALL I BE MOTHER?" they are offering to pour the tea - it is meant as a thoughtful gesture.
HOW TO MAKE TEA - the most important thing is to have the water boiling. This cannot be achieved in the microwave, because the heating is too uneven. The water should be boiled in a kettle (or a saucepan on the stove) and come to a 'ROLLING BOIL." This is why tea offered in many restaurants is unsatisfactory, because it is made with a hot water machine that is normally used for coffee, and therefore is not boiling.
You will notice that British teabags do not have strings attached. They are not intended for use in single cups. Tea is more flavorful when made by pouring the water over the teabags, and not putting the teabag into hot water. British teabags therefore tend to be stronger than American teabags. If you make tea in a cup with a British teabag, the bag will have to be removed quickly, or else the tea will be too strong and taste bitter.
The rule of thumb for tea in a pot is one teabag per cup of tea, but many British teabags (such as Typhoo or PG Tips) are strong enough for one bag per two cups. The tea should be brewed or "STEEPED" for 3 - 5 minutes. Steeping refers to the amount of time the teabags soak in boiling water before pouring it into the cups. Brits would say that if it is left too long, the tea is "stewed."
It has long been controversial in the UK whether the milk should be put into the cup before or after the tea. A few years ago, research proved that, in fact, it makes no difference to the taste. Pouring the milk into the cup first began several centuries ago, when cups were made of thin and fragile porcelain, which might crack if tea close to boiling was poured into them. So the milk was poured first, to reduce the extreme heat of the tea. Nowadays, of course, our china is much stronger, and this is unnecessary. The current view is that if the tea is poured first, then you can more easily judge the right amount of milk to add.
Afternoon Tea can be as simple or as extravagant as desired. It can be simply one or two sandwiches (small and dainty!) with one or more cakes (ditto!) If you want a more generous tea, you can add scones. Unlike the enormous triangular scones sold in coffee shops, Afternoon Tea scones are small, usually round, and soft inside. They can be split and any or all of butter, cream, preserves, and lemon curd can be added. For an even more sumptuous Afternoon Tea, you can serve champagne to start, and include more elaborate sweets, like fruit tarts and chocolate-covered strawberries.
HIGH TEA is the greatest misunderstanding in the tea industry. Many hotels and tea shops advertise High Tea, thinking the name makes it sound more elegant, elite and upscale. Nothing could be further from the truth.
High Tea was a meal that laborers ate at the end of the day when they came in from the fields or the mines. It was the main meal of the day, and depending on the financial situation of the family, it could be as substantial as meat and potatoes, or as simple as bread and butter, cheese and pickles. It was always accompanied by cups of tea. It was know as "High Tea" because it was eaten at the kitchen table - a high table, compared with the coffee-table height from which Afternoon Tea might be served in the Sitting Room. The workers simply called the meal "Tea."
CREAM TEA describes a pot of tea with scones, clotted cream and preserves. These originated in Devon and Cornwall, where the clotted cream is particularly rich and thick. A Cream Tea refers to the cream on the scones - not cream in the tea, which would taste bad.
There are not many RULES OF ETIQUETTE essential for Afternoon Tea. It is mostly common sense and politeness. Also what is acceptable changes with the times. In Victorian times, some tea drinkers poured tea into the saucers to cool before sipping - hence the term "A DISH OF TEA." This would be very unacceptable today.
Please don't raise your pinky finger when drinking your tea. This is an unnecessary affectation. If you are sitting, leave the saucer on the table, and pick up the cup. If you are standing, hold the saucer in one hand, while you pick up the cup with the other. Stir your tea with the least motion as possible. When serving tea, make every effort the keep the tea as hot as possible. Never, never pour tea out of the pot from a great height.
Tea is the second most popular drink on the planet, after water. In British culture it is the answer to all disasters, stresses, illnesses, accidents, or just pure exhaustion from a shop-till-you-drop day. Tea cures everything - or at least makes it feel better.
LINKS . . .
“Tea is one of the main stays of civilization in this country.” — George Orwell
"Wouldn’t it be dreadful to live in a country where they didn’t have tea?” — Noël Coward
“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” — C.S. Lewis
“Tea! Bless ordinary everyday afternoon tea!” — Agatha Christie