It goes without saying that we are partial to a good cup of tea here at Penhaligon’s. But where did the British obsession with tea begin? We invited the founder of the Rare Tea Company, Henrietta Lovell, to enlighten us over a pot of Earl Grey. (Mind you don’t burn the leaves, dear.)
Good afternoon, Henrietta. Tell us, when did tea come to Britain? How was it enjoyed in the past?
Tea came to Britain at the end of the 17th century, and to begin with, it was purely the preserve of the aristocracy. It was expensive, more precious than brandy, Champagne, or pretty much anything else you had in your house, so was often kept under lock and key.
Because it was so prized, tea-making was carried out extremely carefully, to an exact leaf/water ratio and brewing temperature. An over-brewed cup simply wouldn’t do!
Your selection of teas would have signified your good taste and standing in society. You might even have had a bespoke blend made to show loyalty to a particular shop.
How marvellous. And when did those without royal blood begin to partake?
Indeed. Gradually, tea did become more affordable. Everyone would buy the best they could afford, be it cheaper, darker tea that required the addition of milk to counteract the bitterness, or the very best that money could buy. The household’s best tea would be kept for special occasions, like a wedding, or a visit from the vicar.
Was it around this time that afternoon tea was established?
Not quite as we know it today, in the formal sense of cake stands and cucumber sandwiches. That kind of afternoon tea came later, in the 1970s, in places like The Ritz.
In the 18th century, you would drink tea in the afternoon to tide yourself over until dinner time at eight o’clock – the servants ate at six, hence the wait. You might have a little bite to eat with your tea, but nothing too elaborate.
It was around this time that tea got the nickname ‘scandal water’, because everyone would sit around gossiping as they sipped. Taking part in this ritual was another way to signify your wealth, demonstrating to your peers that you had leisure time.
So when did tea in England change from a refined luxury to an everyday staple?
During the Second World War. You’ve got U-boats all around the country, Germany’s trying to starve the British out, and the government has to take over the supply of goods. You can no longer go to the grocer and buy your beautiful tea – now, it’s standard issue government tea, and even that’s strictly rationed.
After the war, supermarkets came along, stealing trade from local grocers. This put pressure on tea producers to make an even cheaper product, and that’s how we ended up with builder’s tea, with its flat, industrial flavour.
And now we’ve come full circle.
Exactly. High-quality tea has come back into fashion, with every good hotel and restaurant now boasting an impressive tea list. This resurgence has happened in the last 10 years, and I like to think we’ve had something to do with that!