January 10th--Tea, Spices, and the East India Company

Tea is one of those ubiquitous flavors that can change the world while being completely taken for granted. It has both changed and promoted tradition, acted as a political linchpin, had a role in wars, been used as medicine, and has been both consumed and avoided for religious reasons. It has also been a sign of culture and refinement in almost every culture it has touched. Although Americans aren't as used to using tea in dishes as many Asian countries are, in recent years, black, white, and green tea have found their way out of the teacup and into recipes ranging from cheesecake to roast duck.

Today in the year 1839 brought the first Indian tea to England. Why is this important?
Tea had
been coming to Europe since 1610, compliments of the Dutch. While it was only ever a trend in Germany and France, the colder climate of England meant that tea quickly became a cultural force to be reckoned with. Up until 1839, though, tea was expensive. The East India Company wanted it to stay that way. Their near monopoly on tea was used by the English government to establish the Tea Tax which sparked our Revolutionary War(ironically enough, the tax was partially to help bail the East India Company out of financial difficulties). By the 1830's, most tea was imported to India in exchange for Opium (then illegal in China), before being shipped on to Great Britain. Since tea was expensive, and risked tampering if bought from a less then careful source, it wasn't as popular in the middle and lower classes. India-grown tea changed that, however.

There is one other practice we have to thank for tea's modern popularity, though: the concept of tea time. This is due in large part to Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford, Queen Victoria's Lady of the Bedchamber between 1841 and 1847. Due to trends, dinner, which at the beginning of the 18th Century was served in the early afternoon and served as the largest meal of the day, began to be pushed later and later--in wealthy households the Victorian norm was 7 or 8 pm. Luncheon was established as a light meal, but left the Duchess wanting something to nibble on between, usually around 4 or 5pm. As time passed she began inviting friends over to share her treat, and soon tea time was a cultural institution. Tea now has it's own set of vocabulary and terms, as well as etiquette, thanks primarily to the Victorians:

Low tea: The original deal. Tea, bread or baked goods, and maybe a small sandwich or two served on a tray or small side-table while socializing. As time passed, the term low tea was more commonly exchanged for tea time. Not to be confused with...

High tea: Serving a full meal at around 5pm, rather then later, at a sit-down table. Essentially a term for dinner for those who didn't(or couldn't) eat fashionably late. In America and Canada, the term has come to mean a fancy tea served at a high-end hotel or resort, although this usage is not the case in the U.K.

Ladies would also have their "at home" day, a particular day of the week on which they were available, tea at the ready, for friends to stop by, a subject which deserves an article all by itself, given the traditions, such as calling cards, which became part of the culture.

For a more thorough history of tea, take a look at Tea: The Drink that Changed the World by Laura C. Martin.

For more information on the East India Company, try The Corporation that Changed the World by Nick Robins.

Quote of the day: OMNIA MIRARI ETIAM TRITISSIMA (Find wonder in all things, even the most common place)--Carl Linnaeus, Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, the father of modern taxonomy. Today is the 232nd anniversary of his death in 1778.


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