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A history of tea

The history of tea began many centuries ago. A Chinese legend tells of an emperor named Shen Nung, around 2737 BC, who was waiting for the water to boil for an infusion when he let a leaf of the plant “Camellia Sinensis” drop into the water. That was the first cup of tea in history.

Tea cultivation soon spread from China to Japan. The first Japanese document mentioning tea dates back to 593 AD and in the thirteenth century a Japanese manual entirely dedicated to this beverage was put in writing.

Over the centuries, the people in the land of the “Rising Sun” appreciated this drink to the point of turning it into a veritable ritual.

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Other countries bordering China like northern India, Thailand and Indochina soon discovered the pleasures of tea, encouraged by Buddhist monks always struggling with alcohol abuse by the population.

The Arabs had discovered tea during their travels among the peoples of Southeast Asia, with whom they had woven a dense network of trade. Always a nation of sailors and merchants, they had appreciated tea since the middle of the ninth century.

The Dutch, thanks to their shipping companies and trade, were the first to introduce tea in Europe and around 1610 Venetians, Portuguese and Russians were among the first to appreciate it.

It is believed that tea arrived in Britain in 1653 (the first document that testifies to its sale as a beverage dates back to 1657).
Catherine of Braganza, daughter of the king of Portugal, was so fond of this exotic drink that, when in 1662 she left her country to marry Charles II, she took several crates of tea with her to England.
At that time tea could be bought in cafés and apothecaries, as well as silk and porcelain merchants.

However, towards the end of the seventeenth century, coffee was still the favorite drink in England, consumed in bigger quantities than tea which had become the preferred drink of the new world.

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The Coffee Houses of London became the ideal meeting places for political and business gatherings so that one could say that its cafés contributed largely to expand the enjoyment of tea.

Around 1700  there were more than two thousand Coffee Houses across London and in the mid-1700s, the Coffee Houses became Coffee and Tea Houses, due to the increasing appreciation of the new drink.

During the eighteenth century tea consumption increased significantly; in fact at the end of the century the domestic ritual had already been adopted in high society families, then it spread to the middle classes and finally to the working classes as the tax on tea was abolished in 1783 by William Pitt to fight the black market.

In the second half of the century the fashion of drinking tea gave rise to the “Tea Gardens”. Londoners of different social status went for walks in private parks graced by  Rococo temples and tasted a good cup of tea accompanied by bread, butter and cakes sitting on the grass, around a coffee table and sometimes even to the sound of an orchestra. Thin slices of soft bread were accompanied by different ingredients according to the invention of the clever Earl of Sandwich, who first conceived, at a gambling table, what later became the typical sandwich as we know it.

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In 1840 Anne, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, invented “afternoon tea” to be served at 6o’clock (at the beginning of the twentieth century it was anticipated to 5 o’clock), as people felt rather peckish in the afternoon.

In many large European cities specialized stores were opened where you could taste the brew and buy the preferred mixtures and accessories such as cups, teapots, kettles like Fortnum & Mason in London stocking a huge variety of teas, elegant tea rooms like The House Of Floris and luxury hotels, like the Ritz, where the “five o’clock tea” is still beautifully served in a stunningly decorated room.

 In Paris Mariage Frères supplies the most exclusive shops, Fauchon serves rare, valuable and quality teas from around the world, Angelina is the historical place where you can enjoy exclusive Indian mixtures.

In Berlin the Cafe Einstein and the Hotel Adlon are the most popular venues for afternoon tea.

Italy discovered tea after the Second World War and a variety of specialized shops and tearooms were opened: Florian in Venice, Babington at the Spanish Steps in Rome, Caffè Pedrocchi in Padua, Caffè Gilli in Florence.

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