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A new luxury (part one)
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Where does tea come from? No one knows for certain. What we do know is that it is made from Camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub or small tree with yellow-white flowers. Experts believe that the plant first appeared in the jungles of Eastern Himalaya, an area so rich in flora that scientists now describe it as a ‘biodiversity hotspot’. Today, Camellia sinensis is cultivated in tropical or sub-tropical regions across the world, including China, India, Japan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Kenya, Pakistan, Rwanda, Argentina and Australia. Since the early part of this century, it has also been grown in Cornwall. Blessed with a soil and microclimate similar to that of Darjeeling, Tregothnan Estate is the first commercial tea grower in the UK. Its teas are so fine that it supplies the luxury London store, Fortnum & Mason.

Perhaps because they are so obscure, the origins of tea drinking have over the centuries been explained by a variety of charming legends. One story claims that in 2 737 BC, tea leaves were accidentally blown by the wind into a herbalist’s pot of boiling water. The man, Shen Nung, who also happened to be a Chinese emperor, found the taste so attractive that he shared his discovery with his people.

Before ever being consumes in hot water, it is likely that tea was chewed by early tribesmen. No one knows when and where people realised that it could be drunk as an infusion, but, during the Chinese Tang Dynasty (AD 607-907), tea drinking became more and more common throughout China, thanks in part to the publication in the eighth century of the first ever book on tea, the Chajing or Classic of Tea by ‘the Sage of Tea’, Lu Yu. This complete and intricate tea guide explained the mythological origins of tea, the different stages of its production, and how best to brew it, using up to twenty-five different utensils in the process. Appropriate tea wares and tea-drinking etiquette were also described in detail.

A new luxury (part one)

This late-nineteenth-century print shows the tea plant Camellia sinensis. Its leaves and leaf buds are used in the making of tea.

Over the years, the Chinese gradually became experts at manufacturing tea bricks – densely packed blocks of compressed tea. These valuable items travelled along the Ancient Tea Route, also known as the Southern Silk Road, a network of paths linking the Yunnan Province in south-west China to central China, Tibet, Nepal, India and the Middle East. By the twelfth century, tea bricks were so ubiquitous that they were actually used as currency in many parts of central Asia – some were even scored, enabling them to be broken into smaller pieces and used as change. But it was only after 1391, when Emperor Hung-wu – founder of the great and long-lived Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) – requested the tea at his court to be in loose-leaf form, that this (now common) type of tea became more widespread.

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