British researchers have found what they believe to be the oldest tea in Britain, and to the surprise of contemporary British tea drinkers, the tea is green! The unassuming box of Chinese tea was acquired around 1700 by a ship’s surgeon James Cuninghame. Cunninghame subsequently gave it as a gift to the famous physician and collector of curiosities, Hans Sloane. Sloane’s vast collection served as the genesis for The National History Museum in London. The tea, labeled ‘A sort of Tea from China’ and acknowledged as a gift ‘from Mr Cuninghame, remained unnoticed until a recent study on the museum’s ‘Vegetable Substances’ allowed the collection’s long forgotten contents to be discovered. Historians from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) subsequently identified the sample’s significance as the oldest physical remnant of the nation’s favorite drink. According to NHM researchers, Dr. Charlie Jarvis and Victoria Pickering, the tea was “almost certainly collected or purchased by James Cuninghame, a Scottish surgeon, trader and collector, during one of his two trips to China in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century”. Dr. Richard Coulton, researcher at QMUL said: “Among other things, Cuninghame was a pretty intrepid plant-hunter. In 1697 he joined an illicit private trading voyage to Amoy in Fujian province, a center for the early-modern tea trade. “He arrived back in Britain in 1699 and very soon after set out again to China with the famous British East India Company. He stayed for three years on the island of Chusan, where he found the tea plant growing wild and witnessed the local manufacturing of leaf tea.”
Cuninghame’s interest in Chinese teas came forty years before the Scottish botanist Robert Fortune started his three-year spy mission into the Chinese interior in search of tea seeds on behalf of the East India Company. Tea drinking in 1700 was considered an exotic and fashionable pleasure, only affordable to the wealthiest consumers since being introduced into London coffee shops in 1658. In 1663, tea was priced at up to 60 shillings per pound for the finest quality, whereas the best coffee was only six shillings per pound. “What makes this discovery so fascinating is that it captures the very moment at which tea was about to lay claim to a mass market in Britain,” Dr. Coulton remarked. But what would the specimen taste like to modern tea drinkers? “It would taste quite some way from the milk and two sugars variety”, said Dr. Coulton. “The tea is loose-leaf green tea, manufactured by peasant laborers on small-holdings in China. The basic process for manual tea production hasn’t really changed, so we might assume that this tea would have tasted much like an artisanal green tea today, albeit one of the rough-and-ready rather than boutique variety. The ‘green’-ness of the tea is interesting: for its first half century, so 1650-1700, Britain’s tea-habit was almost entirely green. It wasn’t until the second quarter of the eighteenth century that darker teas started to take over.” Green tea would remain in favor in both Britain and the American colonies throughout the 18th century. Two Chinese green teas, hyson and singlo, were part of the cargo tossed overboard in Boston Harbor in 1773. And what delicious contribution to British culinary culture was collector Hans Sloane known for?
Sloane traveled to Jamaica in 1725 where he first tasted a chocolate drink he described as ‘nauseous’. But the story goes that after trying it mixed with milk, and not water as it was drunk by the Jamaicans then, he found it much more appealing and ‘healthy’.
Read more about the history of tea in A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew & Bruce Richardson, 2014, Benjamin Press. Article used by permission.