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Time for tea               

                            October 2008

Time for Tea

teaI love tea! Morning, afternoon, late at night – I, like millions of other British people, am always ready for a cuppa!

But while tea is such an integral part of so many people’s lives, it wasn’t always the case. According to the British Tea Council, tea was only introduced into Britain 350 years ago. The Chinese were a lot luckier.

Long history

The history of tea begins in China in 2737 BC when it is thought the Chinese emperor Shen Nung, who was interested in herbs, was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water. Some leaves from the tree blew into the water and Shen Nung 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.

Tea drinking became established in China very early on - containers for tea have been found in tombs dating from the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD).But it was under the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) that tea became firmly established as the national drink of China.

We poor people in Britain, and indeed across Europe, didn’t know what we were missing. It wasn’t until the latter half of the sixteenth century that there were any mentions of tea as a drink among Europeans. These were mostly from Portuguese who were living in the East as traders and missionaries.

However, the first traders to bring tea back to Europe were the Dutch. By the early 1600s  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 western Europe, although because of its high price it remained a drink for the wealthy.

 

Britain’s top tipple

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

The British took to tea with enthusiasm but it remained the drink of the wealthy for a while. This was partly due to tax; the first tax on tea, introduced in 1689, was so high at 25p in the pound that it almost stopped sales. It was reduced to 5p in the pound in 1692, and from then until as recently as 1964, when tea duties were finally abolished, politicians were forever tinkering with the exact rate and method of taxing tea.

One unforeseen consequence of the taxation of tea was the growth of smuggling to avoid taxation.  By the eighteenth century many Britons wanted to drink tea but could not afford the high prices, and their enthusiasm for the drink was matched by the enthusiasm of criminal gangs to smuggle it in. Their methods could be brutal, but they were supported by the millions of British tea drinkers who would not have otherwise been able to afford their favourite beverage. What began as a small time illegal trade, selling a few pounds of tea to personal contacts, developed by the late eighteenth century into an astonishing organised crime network, perhaps importing as much as 7 million lbs annually, compared to a legal import of 5 million lbs!

By 1784, the government realised that enough was enough, and that heavy taxation was creating more problems than it was worth. The new Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, slashed the tax from 119 per cent to 12.5 per cent. Suddenly legal tea was affordable, and smuggling stopped virtually overnight.

After that, tea drinking soon became an established ritual and part of our national culture which remains today.

Serious health benefits

Recent changes though include increased knowledge of the health benefits of tea; something that was not apparent when tea first became fashionable. Tea not only rehydrates as well as water does, but there are aspects in tea that can actually promote health.

Experts believe key ingredients in tea, which include polyphenol antioxidants, can help prevent cell damage.

Public health nutritionist Dr Carrie Ruxton, and colleagues at Kings College London, looked at published studies on the health effects of tea consumption.

They found clear evidence that drinking three to four cups of tea a day can cut the chances of having a heart attack.

Some studies suggested tea consumption protected against cancer, although this effect was less clear-cut.

Other health benefits that have been identified include protection against tooth plaque and potentially tooth decay, plus bone strengthening.

Dr Ruxton said: "Drinking tea is actually better for you than drinking water. Water is essentially replacing fluid. Tea replaces fluids and contains antioxidants so it's got two things going for it."

So next time you stop what you are doing and reach for a cuppa, just remember that not only are you following a tremendously long social custom, but you may also be doing yourself a lot of good.

 



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