Text by: Patrick Dunne
In an elegant early 17th century marine painting that hangs at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, Hendrik Vroom evokes a determined three-masted fluyt tilting toward the city’s port. As it happens, we know the name of this ship. The Mauritius was the first vessel to return from the Orient loaded with cargo that would fantastically enrich shareholders of the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, one of the earliest truly multinational corporations. Also known as the Dutch East India Company, it had a massive flotilla at its peak. Beyond delivering dividends of gold, ships such as these radically changed the culinary culture of Europe. In addition to porcelain and luxury items, they were packed with priceless spices, including tea. Of all the exotic foods and innovative techniques introduced between 1650 and 1850 which revolutionized how everyone in the West ate, none were more conspicuous than three new “foreign” beverages that Europe fervently took up by the end of the 17th century: coffee, chocolate, and tea.
Among the three, tea was a relative latecomer to gustatory popularity. In retrospect, this is paradoxical because it had the longest history of being referenced. Marco Polo mentioned tea in his electrifying 13th century travelogue, and it was certainly well known to Portuguese missionaries a century or two later, who commented on everything Chinese. Nevertheless, it is not until the 1660s that Samuel Pepys, the great English diarist, acknowledges having tasted tea for the first time, and it was really not until the 18th century that it took hold of society, both in England and on the Continent. Despite this slow start, I cannot think of any single culinary novelty that had more influence on decorative style than tea.
By the time Pepys was boasting about being trendy with his cup of tea, China had been drinking it for more than a thousand years. Originally used there for medicinal purposes, it eventually evolved into much more than that. Brought to Japan in the ninth century by monks, it was employed by them to stay awake during long meditations and intimately connected with the spiritual practices of Buddhism. Under the great Zen master Eisai, drinking tea became a meditation practice itself, and highly aesthetical rituals soon developed. Throughout most of the Orient, the tea ceremony was consciously marked by an extreme simplicity that incorporated notions of harmony, tranquility, purity, and reverence. This style, which began in aristocratic circles, was eventually adopted at all levels of society.
Just as in China, when tea was first introduced to the West, it was promoted primarily for medicinal reasons. The earliest treatises in Europe on its beneficial qualities were written by physicians. Whether or not they were in the pay of the great trading companies eager to promote an expensive new product, as some skeptics suggested, we do find early advocates avowing an astounding range of properties: it helped digestion, gout, colds, and even impotence. Something, one supposes, had to justify the high cost, because initially a pound of tea was roughly equivalent to a week’s wages for a laborer. Well into the 18th century the price remained high enough, even in America, for there to be a market in re-used tea leaves, from which the poorer classes concocted a weak brew, or spread on bread and ate.
If European pharmaceutical arguments helped open the market to this new beverage, the stylistic path proved to be completely different from the one in Asia. Far from embracing simplicity, the tea ritual of Europe and the Americas was nothing if not extravagant. Well before Anna, Duchess of Bedford, who is commonly credited with creating teatime as a highly fashionable event, the liquid was being swilled in grand salons from Moscow to Boston. By 1800, tea accounted for nearly 80 percent of the British East India Company trade, and the decorative refinements that taking tea added to culinary style were equally prodigious. Just think of the new fangled equipment introduced to accommodate the popular beverage: tea pots, tea cups, tea caddies, tea spoons, tea tables, teapoys, tea trays, and tea cozies, not to mention auxiliary items such as cream pots and sugar bowls. Tangentially, there is no argument that the beverage craze was instrumental in encouraging the establishment of porcelain factories in Germany, France, and England.
If there is any question of the swank ambience that tea drinking evoked, one need only look at family portraits throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. Nothing bespoke gentility, good taste, and indeed, affluence, more than to have one’s portrait done around a tea table or holding a teacup. No setting was more evocative of status, including a charging steed, than posing with an expensive cup of tea. Europeans may have mediated on other mysteries, but they positively reveled in the teapot.