Tea please!

Top to bottom: Traditional Chinese tea. A ‘proper’ cup of British tea… but should it be milk or tea first? Portuguese Princess, Catherine of Braganza, started the tea craze in this country and finally, tea smugglers!While rummaging around with the TV remote recently, I stumbled across a historical take on tea, starting with the origins of the tea cup, and I started thinking about the significant part it has played in our history.

Tea is often thought of as being a quintessentially British drink and, while we have been drinking it for over 350 years, the history of tea goes much further back. The story of tea begins in China where tea drinking became established many centuries before it had even been heard of in the west.

In the latter half of the sixteenth century there are the first brief mentions of tea as a drink among Europeans. These are mostly from Portuguese living in the East as traders and missionaries. But it was not the Portuguese who were the first to ship back tea as a commercial import. This was done by the Dutch, who in the last years of the sixteenth century, began to encroach on Portuguese trading routes in the East. Tea soon became a fashionable drink among the Dutch, and from there spread to other countries in continental western Europe.

A cup of char!
We Brits, always a little suspicious of continental trends, had yet to become the nation of tea drinkers that we are today. The first dated reference to tea in this country is from an advert in a London newspaper from September 1658. It announced that ‘China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee’ was on sale at a coffee house in the City… and that’s why people talk about a ‘cup of char’!

We owe it all to a Portuguese Princess
It was the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza that was a turning point in the history of tea in Britain. She was a Portuguese princess, and a tea addict, and it was her love of the drink that established tea as a fashionable beverage first at court, and then among the wealthy classes as a whole. 

Milk in first or last?
Putting the milk in last was considered to be the ‘correct’ thing to do in refined social circles, but the real reason for this is often forgotten. In the early days of tea-drinking, poor-quality cups were inclined to crack when hot tea was poured into them, and putting the milk in first helped to prevent this. When finer and stronger materials came into use, this was no longer necessary – so putting the milk in last became a way of showing that one had the finest china on one’s table! Evelyn Waugh once recorded a friend using the phrase ‘rather milk-in-first’ to refer to a lower-class person, and the habit became a social divider that had little to do with the taste of the tea…

Tea smuggling and taxation
Tea became a popular drink in coffee houses, as much locations for the transaction of business as they were for relaxation or pleasure and were the preserve of middle and upper-class men. Women drank tea in their own homes, and as yet, tea was still too expensive to be widespread among the working classes. In part, its high price was due to a punitive system of taxation. The first tax on tea in the leaf, 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 (amazing!), when tea duties were finally abolished, politicians were forever tinkering with the exact rate and method of the taxation of tea.

One unforeseen consequence of the taxation of tea was the growth of methods to avoid taxation – smuggling and adulteration. By the eighteenth century many Britons wanted to drink tea but could not afford it, and their enthusiasm for the drink was matched by the enthusiasm of criminal gangs to smuggle it in. 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 pounds (weight) annually, compared to a legal import of 5 million pounds! Worse for the drinkers was that taxation also encouraged the adulteration of tea, particularly of smuggled tea which was not quality controlled through customs and excise. Leaves from other plants, or leaves which had already been brewed and then dried, were added to tea leaves. Sometimes the resulting colour was not convincing enough, so anything from sheep’s dung to poisonous copper carbonate was added to make it look more like tea – euw!

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.

The topic of tea is huge and fascinating, I could go on… about when cups got their handles, why tea caddies were so important and, of course, the Boston Tea Party. But perhaps I will save that for another time. I’ll just nip off and have a cuppa now…


Ahhh… April!

I do like it when April comes around, I really feel as if Spring is properly underway with the sun climbing ever higher in the sky and the evenings drawing out after the clocks change to British Summer Time.

It is the month that we see most of the plants and hedgerows bursting into life and the birds starting their annual courtship. April 14th is Cuckoo Day when their first call of the year is often heard, followed on the 15th by Swallow Day and the promise of long lazy days of Summer to come – we hope! But beware, April can always plunge us back into the dead of winter without any warning.

“March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers”, is a proverb we are probably all familiar with. But why do we get these classic ‘April showers’? One of the major reasons is the position of the jet stream. A band of very strong winds at around 30,000ft above the surface of the Earth, the jet stream controls the weather that we see on the ground.

High and low pressure systems are formed when the air in the jet stream speeds up or slows down. In early spring the jet stream starts to move northwards allowing large depressions to bring strong winds and rain in from the Atlantic. In one day the weather can change from springtime sunshine to winter sleet and snow.

April can bring all types of weather from sunshine to thunder, from fog and frost to mild muggy and drizzly days. The lowest April temperature for the United Kingdom is a dreadful minus 15°C on April 2nd 1917 in Cumbria – can you imagine?! And then again, it can become very warm with a record temperature recorded in London of 29.4°C on the 16th April 1949.

Cuckoo Day on April 14th is also St.Tiburtius’ Day – not a saint I have come across before. There is a very odd superstition that says if you hear the cuckoo sing on St.Tiburtius’ Day you should turn over all the money in your pockets, spit(!) and not look at the ground. If you do this and are standing on soft ground when you do it, you will have plenty of good luck. However, if you are standing on hard ground, the cuckoo’s call means bad luck. Um, I think I will pass on that one and just enjoy listening out for the cuckoo and its unique call.


Moving on…

My partner in crime writing, Julia, is about to embark on a bit of a mammoth undertaking… moving house after 21 years! I’m jolly glad it’s her that’s moving and not me!! Here, she tells us how preparations are coming on…

“I’ve put it off as long as I can, but the time has come to downsize both my house – very old and spread over three floors, and my garden – too large and steep. As I am sure many of you know, the entire moving process is a bit of a nightmare as this country does not seem to have a particularly logical buying and selling process, unlike Scotland, which does. But I am not going to go on about that side of the business, I was thinking more of the ‘de-cluttering’ exercise that moving house involves…

Over 21 years one does accumulate a lot of ‘stuff’. And the ‘stuff’ always seems to be perplexing. I find myself crawling about in a cluttered cupboard or dusty loft space and thinking: “Where on earth has that come from?” “I don’t ever remember buying that!” or, most commonly, “Why ever did I keep that?!”

My best moment so far has been finding two pairs of curtains and feeling memories fill the air along with the dust of two decades as I opened the plastic bag they were neatly stowed in. The first pair was dark blue velvet, made for me about 50 years ago to keep the early morning summer light out of my bedroom when I was (ahem!) a very young child. The second was a pair of very posh curtains I had made when I bought a house in Cambridge and that I remember, at the time, made me feel thoroughly grown up.

I was thrilled at this rediscovery as I thought they’d been ruined when a squirrel had nested in them in an eaves storage cupboard when I’d first moved into this old house. The endearing little furry creature had gnawed its way through the folded curtains producing an effect rather like we did at infant school when cutting out shapes with scissors on closely folded paper… 

I whipped out the curtains with glee… only to discover that yes, there were the neatly spaced holes created by Mr Squirrel and each curtain completely ruined. So why had I kept them? I have no idea… perhaps some moment of whimsy years ago when I couldn’t bear to part with them. Not so this time around – they went straight in the bin being of no use to man nor beast. But rest assured, anything half decent now resides in my local charity shop. Books, clothes and interesting kitchen rejects now adorn their shelves. All I have to do is stop myself from going in and re-buying everything thinking it’s all so nice and such a bargain… oh dear.

Among many other grubby and rather depressing discoveries was a box of ‘bits’ which included two spanners, numerous packs of travel tissues, a clockwork mouse (really) and two rather bizarre looking red rubber teats. It took me some time, and not a little consternation, to remember that I had once bottle-fed a lamb and teats had been much in demand!

Boxes and boxes of photographs are still sitting waiting to be opened. I will sort through and chuck out the completely pointless, the out of focus and the images of people and places long forgotten. But I am sure most will get packed up again and carted off to my next house as I can’t bear to chuck out images of childhood or of the dear departed. Throwing them away always feels like a rejection somehow. Anyway, sorting through old photos won’t be a chore for today’s young people as printed photos are almost obsolete now. While this may make for less clutter I can’t help but think it’s a shame. Flicking through old and faded photos is a rather lovely way to reflect on who, and what, have gone before and to think positively about what lies ahead.


Easter time

So it’s Easter time again… But it’s a different date to last year. So why is it that the date of Easter can vary by up to a month? The problem is that Easter is one of the festivals that tries to harmonise the solar and lunar calendars. As a general rule, Easter falls on the first Sunday, following the first full moon after 21 March. But not always…

The problem comes because a solar year (the length of time it takes the earth to move round the sun) is 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 12 seconds whereas a lunar year is 354.37 days. Calculating one against another is seriously complicated! There are literally dozens of permutations that are way beyond me to explain, but take my word for it – it’s complicated!

Having got the peculiarities of the date out of the way, what about the various traditions we associate with Easter? Two of the most popular are the Easter egg and the good old Easter Bunny!

A lot of us may chomp on chocolate eggs at Easter but originally eating eggs was not allowed by the church during the week leading up to Easter, known as Holy Week. Any eggs laid that week were saved and decorated to make them ‘Holy Week eggs’ that were then given to children as gifts.

The first chocolate eggs appeared in France and Germany in the 19th century but were bitter and hard. As chocolate-making techniques improved, hollow eggs like the ones we have today, were developed. Unsurprisingly, they very quickly became popular and remain so!

As with so many ‘traditions’ that we hold dear today, we only need to go back as far as the Victorians to establish how the Easter egg as a decorated gift developed. They adapted the traditional egg and, with their customary lavishness, created satin covered cardboard eggs filled with Easter gifts.

So finally, where does that fluffy little character the Easter Bunny fit in? The story of the Easter Bunny is thought to have become popular in the 19th century. Rabbits usually give birth to a big litter of babies, or kittens, so they became a symbol of new life. Legend has it that the terribly industrious Easter bunny lays, decorates and hides eggs as they are also a symbol of new life. But she doesn’t do all the work alone though – in Switzerland, Easter eggs are delivered by a cuckoo, and by a fox in parts of Germany.

Happy Easter to one and all – and don’t eat too much chocolate!


The Mystery of Mrs Beeton…

I was having a sort through my many (far too many!) cookery books last weekend and I came across a copy of ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ first published back in1861. The name Mrs Beeton is still widely known and referred to over 150 years later. The book is still in print today.

But what do most people know about Mrs Beeton? Until I read a recent biography of her by Kathryn Hughes, I’d imagined Mrs Beeton was an elderly Victorian lady who recorded recipes and household tips gleaned through decades of running a thoroughly organised family home. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Born Isabella Mayson, she was an English journalist and editor who married Samuel Beeton, an ambitious publisher and magazine editor. In 1857, less than a year after their wedding, Isabella began writing for one of her husband’s publications, ‘The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’. She translated French fiction and wrote the cookery column, though all the recipes were actually plagiarised from other works or sent in by the magazine’s readers!

In 1859, the Beetons launched a series of monthly supplements to ‘The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’. These 24 instalments were published in one volume as ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ in October 1861. It sold 60,000 copies in the first year alone and was one of the major publishing events of the nineteenth century. Of the 1112 pages, over 900 contained recipes. The remainder provided advice on fashion, childcare, animal husbandry, poisons, the management of servants, science, religion, first aid and the importance in the use of local and seasonal produce.

Isabella was working on an abridged version of her book, which was to be titled ‘The Dictionary of Every-Day Cookery’, when she died of puerperal fever in February 1865 at the age of just 28. As well as producing an incredible amount of published works, in her tragically short life, she gave birth to four children, two of whom died in infancy, and had several miscarriages.

Her name is firmly linked with knowledge and authority on Victorian cooking and home management, and the Oxford English Dictionary states that by 1891 the term ‘Mrs Beeton’ had become a generic name for a domestic authority. She is also considered a strong influence in the shaping of a middle-class identity of the Victorian era. What an amazing legacy for a woman who died so young.