China was the first country to cultivate tea and remains the biggest grower of the Camellia sinensis shrub which most tea varieties are extracted from.
The birth of tea
Tea spans multiple cultures, but China can rightfully claim to be its historic home. For thousands of years, the country grew, picked and drank the tannic brew before it was discovered by the rest of the world.
But now, across all continents and many, many other cultures, it lies at the centre of a centuries-old social ritual. Today the offer of a cup of tea still encourages people to pause their busy lives, meet with each other and sit down and chat, wherever they are in the world.
In 2022 UNESCO even added China’s traditional tea processing techniques, and the social rituals associated with drinking it, to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The evergreen shrub is native to East Asia and appears to have originated around southwest China and northern Myanmar close to the Irrawaddy River.
Inside China, the Wuyi Mountains have become one of the world’s most important tea-producing areas. Around 10,000 hectares of the world’s very best tea is grown here and it is the original source of both oolong and black tea.
Jiang Yuanxun is the latest heir in a 24-generation ancestral line schooled in this fine tea processing art and it was his ancestors some 400 years ago who discovered how to make the tea variety Lapsang Souchong.
When the dried leaves are baked over a pinewood fire, they absorb the smoky flavour, eventually fermenting into the black tea.
The exact origins of Lapsang Souchong remain a mystery but according to legend villagers in the mountains one day left a tea harvest to wilt to avoid soldiers who had entered the area. Later, in a bid to save the ruined crop, the teamakers roasted the oxidised leaves over a pinewood fire. The bad batch was then sold on to unsuspecting European merchants, but it proved so popular they came back for more, and so Lapsang Souchong tea was born.
And that popularity continues: in the UK, when the famous tea company Twinings stopped selling Lapsang Souchong, a government petition was – rather jokily – set up in August 2023.
The petition read:
“Drinking Lapsang is more than a mere act of consumption, it is an integral part of UK culture and daily life. From Winston Churchill to the older and younger generations alive today, it is written into our consciences as joy in the mundane, a part of our lives that is irreplaceable. From reminiscences of the delicate smokey aroma wafting from our parent’s kitchen to the 1960s hippies sipping it from a flask at festivals, Twinings cannot take away part of our culture and heritage.”
It seems then that every country has its favourite type of tea and a particular way of brewing it.
In fact, many cultures across the world insist the only way to brew tea is the way they do it. Luckily Crossing Cultures was able to ask Jiang what the best way is in China, and his diplomatic answer may just resolve numerous disagreements over the old-age question: how do you make the perfect cup of tea?
“It can be drunk alone, or with milk and sugar,” he stated.
Can tea ever be European?
Tea has never been cultivated in large quantities in Europe due to the unsuitable growing conditions but the Azores have a unique micro-climate which is ideal.
Located almost halfway between mainland Europe and the American continent, the Portuguese archipelago’s rainy weather, high humidity and volcanic soil are perfect.
Tea production first began here some 200 years ago, and at one point during the 19th century, a Chinese tea master and his assistant came to the islands to pass on their knowledge.
But Portugal’s connection to tea goes even further back.
It was Portuguese merchants who began shipping the tannic brew from China to Europe in the 1700s, turning tea into the world’s first truly global commodity.
On the north side of the island of Sao Miguel is Europe’s oldest tea plantation and factory, where both green and black tea have been grown since 1883. There used to be several plantations but now Chá Gorreana is the last one standing.
Madalena Motta is from the fifth generation of this family-run business, and it was her ancestors who turned to tea after the island’s orange cultivation collapsed.
“This place is everything to me, it’s my life, my passion, it’s what I’m going to do until I die,” she told Euronews who spoke with her at harvest time, the busiest time of the year.
The production process has changed little in 140 years: once harvested the leaves are brought from the fields and left to wilt for a few hours.
“In one day we collect 2,500 kilos of leaves to make 500 kilos of tea. It takes five kilos of leaves to make one kilo of tea. So I need 2,500 kilos of fresh leaf per day,” Madalena explains.
Machines dating back to the factory’s early days roll the leaves and this gives the tea its distinctive flavour. The leaves are then left to oxidise for a short amount of time before being packed.
After input from the University of the Azores, the plantation lowered the high 90-degree Celsius temperature it maintained when drying the tea leaves, discovering that the leaves lost less of their strength.
And that now makes – according to the people of the Azores at least – the perfect cup of tea.
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