Coffee makes my heart flutter sometimes. But tea….oh, tea can take me there and back again!
A drink as ancient as human civilization, we are STILL learning about tea, in this modern renaissance. So many teahouses have popped up in the U.S., and the current matcha trend is astronomical in its scope and breadth. Taking it back to the humble Camellia sinensis, plant, however, tea has had an undeniable impact on human history, weaving its way into our literature, religion, medicinal practices (Eastern and Western traditions), and overall consciousness. Tea (called Chai in India- yes, Starbucks has fooled us all into ordering “Tea Tea Lattes”!) originated in the East, with literature attesting its value as early as the Tang dynasty (600-900 AD). Meticulous writings indicate how and where to cultivate the plant and even the ideal temperatures for steeping the leaves.
Tea has been used as currency and given as gifts for nobility, some special blends even commissioned to commemorate royals, in their time. Earl Grey, a popular blend of bergamot oil with black Ceylon tea (grown in Sri Lanka), was actually a shrewd business move in 1830s England that created a legendary drink. The popularity of Chinese medicine brought green and white tea to the fore, especially after Western scientists confirmed what others knew all along: high antioxidants in tea offer a wide range of health benefits. Thus, came the 21st-century boom of EGCG-boasting skin creams, tablets, smoothies, and even hair products. In parts of the Caribbean, the word “tea” is now used for any hot drink, some having nothing to do with the tea plant, at all!
DID YOU KNOW?
“With over 3,000 varieties, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world after water. Tea can be divided into six basic categories: black, dark (including puer), oolong, yellow, green, and white.”
– The Tea Source
The Francophone province of Canada has had a heavy British influence for much of its 400-year history, thus lending an obvious element of culture, the ubiquitous “cuppa”. The nuns at Le Monastère des Augustines have been incorporating medicinal hot beverages called Tisanes (steeped herbal remedies usually without caffeine) since they opened their doors in New France in the 1600s, recognizing the holistic health benefits of a variety of plants. Including a meditation ritual that centers one’s thoughts and spirit when imbibing the healthful concoction is not a new-age concept, according to the Sisters.
The Wendat First Nation of Quebec also used several different native plants in this fashion, including the popular Labrador Tea, which can be purchased in loose or tea bag form. Labrador was used as a spice for meat, and in tea form in many social rituals, as well as inducing labor for women (thus not advisable if you are pregnant). It is a revered custom that was easily recognized by the colonizing French and British and thus was able to survive occupation.
In the island nation of Cyprus, majority Greek and Turkish ethnic groups find themselves sharing space with a growing immigrant British and Russian population. Thus, this hot Mediterranean climate of mostly coffee drinkers has had a sprouting of tea shops as well. In a modern grocery store, one can find several varieties of British and American brands of tea, and locally made Cypriot honey to go with it. Unique flavorings for green and black tea include juniper berries and lavender, both which happily grow in Cyprus.
In the Moscow Sheremetyevo (SVO) Airport, I was pleased to stumble upon a unique experience in Terminal D. Café Uzbechka serves you a personal ceramic pot of loose green or black tea steeped with thyme. They also had preserved white cherries in syrup available to accompany the pungent earthy flavor of the tea. Superb.
Needless to say, tea has made its way around the globe, by influence and by conquest, but has been adapted and appropriated for a multitude of customs and circumstances. Hot or cold, it is the mark of health, of home comforts, and of mutual respect. I tend to take some with me when I travel, but don’t forget to seek out the unique experience at your destination as well.