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The origins of tea
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Tea originated in China but myth and mystery surround the actual discovery of what was to become Fortnum’s finest and most famous offering. One story relates how, in 2737 BC, the learned Emperor Shen Nung was gathering plants. He rested under a tall wild tea bush and boiled some water for refreshment. A few leaves lazily drifted down from the branches and fell into the water. The resulting stimulating and refreshing liquor is what we now call tea. A later legend describes how Dharuma, a Buddhist monk, fell asleep while meditating. He punished himself for this transgression by cutting off his eyelids. They fell to the ground and there the first tea bushes grew. Wild bushes may have been the Emperor’s choice as a source of tea, but the plant has been cultivated for millennia. Connoisseurs during the T’ang dynasty (618 – 906 AD) crushed steamed bound-together leaves to make a sort of tea powder that was then mixed with a variety of flavourings - including plum juice and onions, the latter being arguably an acquired taste.



The origins of teaThe origins of tea
Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) tea drinkers whipped ground tea into hot water until it was frothy, which sounds rather like a very early tea cappuccino. There is no record of onions being added to this concoction, but flowers and essential oils made sure it was extremely exotic. It was not until the Middle Ages that tea drinkers in China (1368 – 1644 AD to be exact) developed tea as we know it today. Steamed leaves were dried, added loose to the water and left to steep, before being poured into white porcelain to display its colour. Drying the leaves allowed the tea to ferment or oxidise to a coppery red, and make it easier to store while preserving its essential characteristics. It also meant that it was fit to travel to far-off lands.

Although tea drinking has become inextricably linked with Englishness, it was in fact introduced to Europe by Portuguese and Dutch traders in the early seventeenth century. Tea had reached London by 1658, although it took the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza (a Portuguese princess) to make it wildly fashionable at court. The court connection was important in the creation of a certain tea emporium in the heart of St James’s…


The origins of tea



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