A legend says that tea was discovered in China in the third millennium BC. When a Chinese Emperor was having breakfast in his garden, a tea leaf fell into his cup with hot water. The water became coloured and the Emperor was delighted with the taste of the new drink. To Britain, tea came much later. It happened in the 17th century, when the British ships landed on the shore of China and came back with a load of tea.
Tea drinking became fashionable in England after Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza. She adored tea and introduced it to the royal court. Just as people today will copy celebrities, people in the 17th and 18th centuries copied the royal family. Tea drinking spread like wildfire, starting first among the nobles and then spreading to wealthy businessmen who liked to sit down for a nice “cuppa” in coffee houses. Tea was an expensive product. It was only for the rich and often kept under lock and key.
In the 17th century the British really had two daily meals – breakfast and dinner. Dinner was the heaviest meal of the day, and was usually served in the afternoon. The custom of eating a regular “afternoon tea” began during the 1700’s, as people began serving dinner later and later in the evening. For the aristocracy, or at least for the Duchess Anna Maria of Bedford, 6 hours between meals was simply too long. She began to ask for a cup of tea and light snacks to be served around 5 pm, and then began to invite guests to join her. The custom of “afternoon tea” was born, and it spread among the upper classes and then among the workers, for whom this late afternoon meal became the main of the day.
The first tea shop for ladies was opened by Thomas Twining in 1717 and slowly tea shops began to appear throughout England making the drinking of tea available to everyone. The British appreciated the new drink for its taste. It was also believed that tea cured lots of diseases. However, the most important thing was that drinking tea prevented lots of diseases – to make the drink people used boiled water and drank less raw water.
For centuries now, tea has been the national drink of Great Britain. Tea has so thoroughly integrated itself into British culture that during World War II the government was seriously afraid that the country’s morale could suffer from the lack of tea and made a special decision to ration it.
Tea has worked its way into language too. Nowadays people have tea breaks at work, even if they drink coffee or cola. Many people call the main evening meal tea, even if they drink beer with it. When there is a lot of trouble about something very unimportant, it is called a storm in a tea cup. When someone is upset or depressed, people say they need tea and sympathy. In fact, tea is the best treatment for all sorts of problems and troubles.