Tuesday, 24 September 2013

for all the TEA in China

In my grandmother's day everyone drank tea - there was very little else to drink and in some places drinking tea was actually better than drinking plain water because the water in the tea had been boiled.  The whole family drank tea for breakfast, lunch, dinner and in between.  It was relatively cheap,  refreshing in hot and cold weather and gave people something to do when socialising.  The process of boiling the water, brewing the tea, pouring and sipping helped to solve all problems, calm the spirit and to heal all wounds.

Tea is a hot drink made by infusing dried crushed tea leaves in boiling water.  We often refer to the infusion of other leaves, plants or flowers as tea, or herbal teas, but that is not real tea.

Real tea is made from the leaf of the tea bush, Camellia sinensis, which is native to southern and eastern Asia and has been grown as a cash crop for hundreds of years. The plant is a close relative of the camellia.  In Mandarin it was called ch'a, which is the origin of the char and chai words for tea, and in the Amoy dialect it was T'e.
The tea drinking habit came to Australia, from the United Kingdom, with the first settlers. For middle class England tea was served with a light afternoon meal  of sandwiches and cake.  I think the main meal was in the middle of the day and they had supper of buttered toast and cocoa late at night.  For the working people tea was the evening meal and both these concepts became part of the early Australian culture.

High Tea was a tradition from around the mid 1700s as a late afternoon meal for working men. They were usually grubby and smelly after work, so had their tea standing up, or sitting on tall stools at a high bench and it became a 'high' tea of scones, toast and fruit cake, served with tea.

Later, this evolved into an early meal for 'well to do' people, before a night out at the theatre or playing cards so High Tea was a light but nourishing meal. Later in the evening they returned home for supper, which was often cold meat and veg as the servants had gone to bed.  Around this time the Fourth Earl of Sandwich had the idea of holding a slice of meat between two slices of bread - so he could eat while playing cards - and the High Tea sandwich came into being.

My grandmother, who was born into a large family and grew up in a one room shack on a dairy farm, liked to feel that as she had trained as a nurse and made something of herself she could put on a few airs and graces. 'We' never referred to the evening meal as tea. That was for working class people.  In our house 'we' had dinner in the evening.  I was never quite sure about meals because on Sunday, when the lamb roast was served in the middle of the day it was also called dinner and on Sunday night we had early tea of toasted sandwiches and later on a supper with hot chocolate. So, if you had lunch you could have dinner, but if you had dinner at lunch time, then after tea you got supper.  I'm glad elevenses remained in England.  It all depends on who your grandmother was.

Until the 1960's tea, in Australia, was made in a pot and the left over tea leaves were disposed of by the back door, usually into a vegetable patch where they acted as fertiliser and mulch, or into a pile of maiden hair ferns that seemed to grow where people tipped tea leaves.  People who didn't have a back door often emptied the tea pot into the loo and at one family gathering I remember a small cousin came back from a visit to the toilet to announce to the room of relatives that 'someone in this house has a very sick tummy'.  Apparently Great Aunty had emptied the teapot and not flushed.

In the Aussie bush tea was brewed in
 tin billy-can over an open fire
An Australian tradition is billy tea - still make in camping grounds all over the country, it just takes a fire, a tin can of boiling water, a handful of tea and a gum leaf.  Tea and rum were the drinks, and at times currency, of early settlement days but real tea was not always available to people in the bush. The Leptospermum tree, from the family Myrtaceae, is commonly known as Teatree, from the practice of early settlers soaking the leaves in boiling water to make a tea substitute. I can't imagine what that tasted like.  I live near the town of Nambour which gets it's name from the local Aboriginal name for the tea tree.  

Tea tree oil distilled from Melaleuca alternifolia is popular for it's amazing antiseptic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties.  

But, back to real tea, a visit to a Chinese tea shop will cause confusion because hundreds of different types and blends of tea are on offer, but there are only a few basic categories of tea and they all come from leaves of the same Camellia Sinensis plant. The processing of the newly picked leaves is what determines the tea's colour and taste.

Black tea is exposed to air until the oxidation of the leaf brings on its dark colour.  

Green tea comes from quickly heating the leaves to prevent further fermentation, and this gives the green colour and milder flavour.

White, yellow and the oolong teas are in-between, with different grades of fermentation.

Picking tea in India
History tells that tea travelled to Europe around 1590 when a Portuguese priest visited China and got permission to take some tea plants home, but until the 19th century nearly all tea was grown in China and most of it was exported to Great Britain.  
When political and business problems made trade difficult the British managed to get hold of (make off with), enough tea bushes to start tea plantations in Assam and Darjeeling in India, and Kenya in Africa, where it is still produced.  And, though China is still the biggest producer of tea, India comes a close second.

Apparently, for 300 years, at the London Tea Auction, tea was sold ‘by the candle’ system; bidding for lots went on until an inch of a candle had burnt away.

Water is still the most consumed beverage in the world today, but tea is a close second as we drink more than 3 billion cups of tea a year. The biggest consumers - and this may be a surprise - are the people of United Arab Emirates, followed by Morocco and then Ireland! 

My grandmother, and her sisters, treasured their tea pots - one for every day, one for special occasions and one for decoration but today most people don't own a tea pot because teabags have replaced brewing in the pot. But, tea post are still included in children's toys and cartoons. Gone are the tea pots and knitted tea cosies, tea caddies and spoons, and the tradition of one for each person and one for the pot. Even the ferns miss out as tea drinkers who don't want to waste the used tea bags 'feed' them to elkhorns in their garden.

Some healthy things people say about tea: 
Green tea and white tea especially are praised for many health benefits, including antibiotic effects, anti-cancer properties, boosting of the immune system, lowering of cholesterol levels and improvement of cardiovascular health.
Tea contains vitamins B2, B1 and B6 and is also rich in potassium, manganese, folic acid and calcium.
Tea contains half the amount of caffeine found in coffee.
One cup of white tea contains the same amount of antioxidants as 10 cups of apple juice.
Tea can help soothe a sore throat, black, green and oolong tea have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may help alleviate symptoms.

Times to avoid tea:
Black tea can block iron absorption from foods and supplements so it's best to avoid tea when taking vitamins or eating foods that are rich in iron.
Green tea is a significant source of vitamin K, which can interfere with the effects of blood thinners such as warfarin.

A few other uses for tea: 
The used tea leaves can be beneficial as fertilizer for the garden.
Used tea leaves can absorb odours in the refrigerator.
Tea in a foot bath can eliminate some foot odours.

Interesting things said about tea:
The water source, temperature and brewing time effect the taste of the tea.
Half a kilo of loose tea can make about 200 cups of tea.
An experienced picker can collect over 30 kg of tea a day!
Until the 19th century, solid blocks of tea were used as money in Siberia.
Tea breaks are a tradition that have been with us for approximately 200 years.
Drinking 4 cups of tea a day is recommended for health.
Tea is a natural source of fluoride that could protect against tooth decay and gum disease.
The first book about tea was written by Lu Yu in 800 A.D.
Apart from tourism, tea is the biggest industrial activity in India.
98% of people have milk in their tea, but only 30% have sugar.
Tea bags were invented in America in the early 1800s. 

Tea bags were originally made of silk and were used to hold tea samples from India.
Slightly damp tea leaves can repel insects.

And I don't know if any of these things are true.

'Women are like tea bags. They don't know how strong they are 
until they get into hot water.'   Eleanor Roosevelt.


2 cups water
1 green tea bag, or loose green tea (for antioxidants)
2 teaspoons turmeric powder (antibacterial, exfolient)
1 tablespoon honey (moisturiser and softens)
2 -3 teaspoons rose water (smells nice)
Steep the tea in boiling water until you have a brew of very strong tea.
Open the teabag if using one, the leaves act as an exfolient.
Stir in turmeric, honey and rose water. 
Pour into a standard ice cube tray and into the freezer.
Wash your face with warm water to open the pores.
Rub a tea ice cube all over your face for several minutes, paying attention to the forehead, nose and chin.
With your fingers, gently massage the turmeric/tea leaf residue over your face to exfoliate.
Rinse off with cold water.
Finish with a splash of witch hazel or other toner, and moisturise.



  1. Another reference would be the stage play, A cup of tea, a bex and a good lie down. Rex

    1. That's a blast from the past - and one I barely remember.
      A Cup of Tea, a Bex and a Good Lie Down was a comedy revue that opened at Sydney's Phillip Street Theatre on 18 September 1965. It was the longest running show at the theatre and was performed over 250 times during its extended run. The cast included John Ewart, Gloria Dawn, Ruth Cracknell and Reg Livermore and the play was written by John McKellar.
      The play's subject matter was Bex, a strong compound analgesic in the form of A.P.C. or aspirin-phenacetin-caffeine tablets or powder. The product was advertised with the phrase, "Stressful Day? What you need is a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down".
      Bex powders were the housewife's drug of choice in the 1950s and 1960s until they were shown to be highly addictive and responsible for causing kidney disease when taken in large doses.
      The expression "A cup of tea, a Bex etc." had gained currency through much of Australia in the post-World War II period when aspirin became readily available. McKellar's play reinforced the phrase "and the title quickly became a common Australian saying".[7] It was often used in the pejorative and abbreviated form "go and take a Bex" to indicate to an over enthusiastic person that they should take a more relaxed attitude to the subject being discussed, or to soothe a frazzled housewife. As such, in Australia, it has currency in bar room discussions, particularly where one person became animated in expressing a point of view that was contrary to the general view point of the group.

  2. I notice you didn't mention the other tea parties, starting with the Boston Tea Party. That was a significant tea event.

  3. No, I didn't - mainly because I don't fully understand the politics of the time and also there is such a strong tea party movement now, which I also do not fully understand except that it's about American taxes, that it's getting into a whole other area. The original tea party - throwing the tea into the Boston harbour - was also about taxes, not tea.


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