Posted in Kafevend Blog

Earlier this week we were having a look at how tea rooms began in England. Today we are going to look a little further back at how tea arrived in England in the first place.

Some of the first tea to make its way to Europe came by way of the Silk road in the 15th century. Winding its way from China westwards through Persia and Arabia, a small amount ended up in the hands of Venetian merchants, where it was known as a medicinal herb. In the middle of the same century however, the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire all but put to an end the 1,500 year old trade route as they implemented a trade embargo against their rivals. The countries of Europe were not discouraged however, and many enterprising individuals began to seek new routes to the lands where these exotic goods came from.

The first European country to make their way to the east by sea were the Portuguese, who had divided the task of exploring the globe with Spain during the 15th century. Whilst the Spanish-sponsored Italian explorer Christopher Columbus was trying to convince everyone that he had found a westward route to India after arriving on the shores of Cuba, Portuguese explorers like Vasco de Gama had actually made it to India and beyond. By the beginning of the 16th century they had made contact with China and forged the path to a whole new world of lucrative trading opportunities for themselves, though the other European powers were soon to follow.

Not much is known about what the Portuguese thought of tea, but they were certainly fans a century or so later, as the much recited tale of Catherine of Braganza suggests. Tea began making its way to England in greater amounts during the latter half of the 17th century as the monolithic British East India Company recognised a new cash crop in the making. Intially purchasing tea from the Dutch in Batavia, the merchants soon began trading directly with the Chinese, in what was to become an increasingly uncivil relationship.

It wasn't just the big companies bringing tea to England. Samples came back in the hands of travellers such as the Scotsman James Cuninghame, a surgeon and amateur naturalist. When he returned home from China in the late 17th century, he brought with him a box of tea leaves. Amazingly this box, and its contents, still survive to this day, making it the oldest tea in England. It was discovered recently by Matthew Mauger and Richard Coulton from Queen Mary University, following the digitisation of an 18th century catalogue.

We have Hans Sloane, a contemporary and friend of Cuninghame  to thank for this relic. Like Cuninghame, Sloane was an avid collector of plants. Sloane added Cuninghame's tea to his collection which went on to form the basis of the British and Natural History Museum, thus keeping the tea in a safe place to be discovered!

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