Keep calm and drink tea.
“To drink tea is to forget the noise of the world.”, an ancient saying goes in China. From the land of the rising sun originates what is known as “tea”, initially mentioned in ancient Chinese writings, over 4700 years ago. Just like whisky, tobacco and wine, many myths and legends grow around the origins of tea culture. The most popular might be the story of Chinese emperor Shen Nong. Thousands of years ago, the saying goes, he rested under an old tree in his palace garden. Some leaves fell off one of the trees branches, and into some water the “son of heaven” was boiling in the shade of the tree’s crown. The leaves then turned the rolling boil of the water into bright green, adding a pleasant fragrant to the steam. Curiously observing the spectacle, the emperor had a taste from the hot brew. And lo and behold: He felt revitalised and refreshed by his discovery.
Since the beginning of the 18th century “tea” is used for all kinds of herbal infusions – leaves and fruit creations alike. In earlier days the term was predominantly used to reference classic green or black teas.
Buddhist monks brought tea culture to Japan, some thousand years later, and was soon entwined with the religious myths of Zen-Buddhism. From these cultural influences derive the complex Japanese tea ceremonies. The story of Bodhi-Dharma recalls how deep tea is rooted into eastern religion: For years and years the buddhist monk perpetually meditated, fighting the urge to sleep with all his strength – until he eventually fell victim to an enormous fatigue. When he awoke, he was so furious over his failure that he ripped out his eyelids and threw them away. But the eyelids grew roots and sprouted the first tea bush. With its help, from this day forth, the monk could triumph over sleep and fatigue. And to this day, the Japanese sign of “Cha” is used for both “tea” and “eyelid” alike.
To be clear: Handling tea like a proper British gentleman means not to grab one’s tea cup with the firm grip of a business handshake, but to hold it gently, with two fingers – and without splaying that small finger. That being understood as a sign for eccentricity and an impolite desire for attention. Licking off the spoon or tingling it around the fine china tea cup is considered just as rude and utterly unbritish. In his well known essay “A nice cup of tea” the English author George Orwell lists no less than eleven golden rules for proper tea consumption. Initially published in London’s “Evening Standard” in 1946, Orwell recommends to preheat the tea pot, refrain from added sugar and – most importantly – to first pour the tea, and then add the milk, for a truly sublime afternoon delight. George Orwell was a man of extraordinary talent, indisputable in many things, but this last statement is still a matter of divergency in British culture today as it was 70 years ago. Amongst many tea connoisseurs the order of tea and milk – respectably milk and tea – can incinerate emotional lectures, lasting through long nights, and over many, many cups of tea. Orwell himself admits that probably each and every British family fathers these two schools of thought, himself nonetheless proclaiming the right and true, the one and only, of course. Eventually the discussion itself is as British as it gets, with British culture being equal parts of self-irony and – well – drinking tea. Alarming, in this context, is a study recently published in the United Kingdom, claiming a remarkable decline of tea enthusiasts in Britain. “The Guardian” interprets these recent findings as an unmistakable sign for the certain doom of the Commonwealth, of course.
The terminology of “tea time” or “afternoon tea” is indeed more commonly used outside the Commonwealth, because on the British island, there is always time for a cup of tea. The Afternoon Tea in London unfortunately is an attraction similar to the Munich Mule in Bavaria or the Veneziano in Italy: You think you’ve found the source and true origin of genuine culture, just to get ripped off for mediocre quality – until you find that ordinary cup of tea in a small, low-key pub just ‘round the corner, that lives up to the legends.
Speaking of legends: The famous Earl Grey is the most favoured tea in Britain. And again, they say, coincidence helped fate along: A shipment of dried black tea leaves rested beside barrels of bergamot oil. During episodes of rough sea and sailing some oil got loose and accidentally infused the stored packings of tea. The Earl of Grey shall then have found it to be so extraordinarily fragrant and pleasant in taste that he preserved the tea from destruction and is hence accountable for yet another British original.
At the tables of Grand Imperial.
The best Afternoon Tea, with Chinese and thus original back-to-the-roots tradition, can be found at London Grand Imperial Restaurant inside the luxurious Dorchester Hotel at Buckingham Palace Road. Here, tea is not only served alongside a classy cucumber sandwich and some cake, but accompanied by exquisite Dim-Sum creations, especially crafted for the very occasion. Sweet or salty, most surprisingly delicious nonetheless are the chocolate creations. But still, highlight of the visit are the endless pours of only the finest Chinese teas – reaching from leaves with fresh, floral taste to traditionally fermented herbal infusions from Yunnan. A selected tea from Osmanthus flowers is said to have even wondrous rejuvenating effects, for skin smooth like Chinese porcelain: Waiter, pour me a bathtub! The exclusive tea experience at Grand Imperial costs you around 28 pounds, including a glass of Rosé-Champagne. A reasonable price for the ladies and gentlemen connoisseurs, and a heart-warming gift for Christmas.