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tea picker

This post is extracted from a historical article that was published in “The Magazine of Magazines”, Feb. 1757. The author prefaced his account by saying the effects of the tea plant put some people into vapours, affected their complexion, spirits, and nerves, so as to apprehend themselves either dying, or dangerously ill, gave others the cholic or gripes, and affected not a few with tremors, &c. while it enlivened the mind, eases the stomach and bowels, and helps to brace the nerves of others. His statement, “though it is almost universal in use”, gives testament to the commonality of tea drinking by the mid-18th century.

He described in great detail the plant, how it grew, and the method of drying and rolling the tea leaves. “The leaves should never be gathered before the bush is three years old. “

Only the small uppermost leaves were harvested. “These leaves are scarce fully opened, being only of two or three days growth: but they are accounted the best, fetch the best price, and are called the Flower of Tea…” Older leaves were classed and sold, “according to their size and goodness. The greater quantity imported into Europe is of the third, or grosser sort…”.

Some accounts indicate it took up to three years from the time the leaves were picked, dried, and rolled for them to arrive by ship in the colonies. By then a great deal of the flavor was lost. Consider also, that because tea was still somewhat of a luxury, early accounts speak of using the same tea leaves up to a half dozen times, and we begin to comprehend its value.

“After the leaves are gathered, they are, the same day, carried to the workhouse, and roasted over a slow fire in an iron-pan: and that they may be thoroughly and equally dried, the roaster keeps them constantly stirring with his hands: then takes them out with a shovel like a fan, and commits them to the rollers, who roll them with the palms of their hands, in small parcels, till they are equally cooled, and the sharp, yellow, and greenish juice is quit discharged; if not, they are roasted and rolled a second and third time till it is: and then they are poured upon a mat, and sorted a second time into different classes according to their goodness; and those that are less curled or burnt are taken out.

As soon as this prepared Tea is quite cold and sorted, the Chinese put it into boxes of coarse tin, inclosed [sic] in wooden chests, and carefully stopped in all the clefts with paper, to preserve the Tea from the effect of the air. These boxes, tubs, or chests contain about one hundred and twelve pounds each, and are the same in which the East India Company imports their Tea into the port of London.

It is commonly said, that the Dutch were the first importers of Tea into Europe, about the year 1606, for which they exchanged dried sage with the Chinese. And tho’ the English did certainly, about the same time, gain a knowledge of this shrub; we do not find that the government took any cognizance of it till the restoration, when in 1660, a duty of eight pence per gallon was laid on the liquor made and sold in all coffee-houses, and attended with the inconvenience of an excise officer’s survey, who was not obliged to attend above twice a day”.

[It is possible the date 1606 is a printing error and should have read 1660 as Londoner Samuel Pepys wrote in his journal that he first tasted tea in 1660, or the author may have been mistaken in his information.]

The author praised the quality of Japanese tea and noted it was also grown in Siam but made no comment as to its quality.

“The Tea commonly imported amongst us, is only of two sorts, green and Bohea. At first the Europeans mostly used the green: but since the Japan trade is lost, and we have traded most with the Chinese, who, when they are weak, chiefly confine themselves to Bohea, and ascribe to it a singular virtue of healing, and preventing diseases, and applaud it as the balsam of life to the human machine, we have introduced the use of Bohea-tea very much; tho’ Green tea is still the favourite of nice palates, and persons of high rank”.

The Bohea teas were named Pekoe, Congo, and Common. “The Pekoe is a very small black leaf, and has many small white flowers mixt with it. It has the most pleasant and delicate flavor…The Congo is of a larger leaf and a deeper brown…The Common Bohea is blacker and larger leaved than either of the former, and smells and tastes faint, and not unlike dried hay…

Green tea is distinguished by the names of Hysson…imperial, common, and ordinary”.

An account was published in 1725 stating that the first crop leaves were never sold in Europe, they being reserved for the princes of the land and never leaving China, whereas bohea (second, third, or even fourth picking) was imported into Europe. That distinction between the first tiny leaves (green tea) and subsequent gathering of leaves at varying seasons (bohea) was published as early as 1725. [A New Theory of Physick and Diseases. 1725. London]

Initially only the affluent could afford real tea, and those of lesser means tried to make a similar infusion from locally grown plants, primarily from veronica, red whortle-berry, rose, betony, nettles, agrimony, coltsfoot, eyebright, strawberry, scabious, cow-slips, golden-rod, cherry-tree, peach-tree, wall-rue, sharp-leaved plantane, fanicle, liverwort, lungwort, brankurfine, balm, sage, rosemary, &c. In times of scarcity, as during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, Americans again brewed tea-like beverages from those and other ersatz plants. [The Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Vol. 3. 1766. London]

For those of means tea was being referred to as, “an habitual Drink in England” by 1747. [James, Robert. Pharmacopoeia Universalis. 1747. London]

Tea was purchased from an apothecary or chemist, in loose-leaf form in Europe and America. It was taken from a large container in the shop and sold in whatever amount the customer asked for. The source above, and numerous others from the early to mid-18th century, made no mention of compressing the tea leaves into bricks for shipment to Europe or America. When speaking of tea bricks, they were being shipped to Tibet, Russia, or Siberia or used as currency in earlier times. Tea bricks shipped to Tibet were boiled with butter or milk and salt and the tea eaten under the name buttered tea. No thanks, gentle reader, I’ll stick with drinking it. Blissful Meals, all©