18 April 2018
In 1606 the first tea chests arrived in Amsterdam, Holland: it was the first cargo of tea to be officially registered at a Western port. The Netherlands, at this time, had control over the trade of rare commodities from the Orient, but the English who, a few years later, founded the East India Company in direct competition with the Dutch company, soon questioned their dominance. The introduction of tea in England took place in a specific way: the coffee houses were at the time very fashionable. They were spreading rapidly and were very successful. During the same period Catherine of Bragance, a Portuguese princess and wife of the young king of England, brought as a dowry Bombay and the custom of drinking tea at anytime of the day!
From then on, tea became a real craze all over the country. Having been taken up by the royal court, it was just a question of time before tea won over all levels of society and quickly became a huge popular success. Today tea is a pillar of British society and the English drink it throughout the day: starting with an “early morning tea” often taken in bed with some plain biscuits, followed by the breakfast tea that washes down the large meal of that name, then comes “elevenses” at 11 o’clock, which will sustain them until it is time for the traditional “afternoon tea”. Finally, a last tea is often taken in the evening just before bedtime.
“Afternoon tea” in Great Britain is a real tradition. It is a custom that was established by the seventh Duchess of Bedford in the 19th century. At the time, lunch was taken very early and supper very late so the duchess made a habit of taking tea in the afternoon between three and four o’clock together with a light meal. She began inviting her friends to join her and thus started a fashion that enjoyed immediate and considerable success.
Today, as in the 19th century, friends or family are invited around for tea. Milk, sugar and lemon are always provided in order to cater to everyone’s tastes. Tea is prepared following five cardinal rules that are typically British and are most suited to the type of tea that is drunk in England:
- warm the teapot with boiling water, in order to warm the leaves so that they can release all their flavour,
- add one teaspoon of tea per person plus one extra for the pot,
- pour simmering, never boiling, water onto the leaves,
- leave to brew for three and five minutes,
- stir once and then serve.
When “afternoon tea” was established, it gave rise to many artefacts, utensils, cakes… The tea caddies, tea-cosies, tea balls, tea strainers, sugar bowls, milk jugs, teacups, teapots, scones, cakes, muffins, crumpets, toasts, cream puffs etc., are all creations to bring out the best in tea, both in its the serving and in its drinking; they all contribute to the cosiness of taking tea the English way.