Salvation in Tea

OPINION: ROBERT INCE

With National Tea Day happening this weekend, Q&C looks at the country’s endless love affair with the good old-fashioned cup of tea, and its benefits to both spirit and our health.

Unremarkable though it may seem, but one of the highlights of a recent trip to Copenhagen was a cup of tea. Exhausted and cold from a marathon trek around the city’s streets all day, my friend and I decided to avoid the nocturnal icy winds and meandering night-time crowds likely in abundance in the bars and instead ordered hotel room service; a cheese board and a large pot of tea.

So with CNN on the television and the sheets pulled over us in our single beds to stave off the chill, we immediately tucked into the delights before us. Me and my pal share a profound love for tea, moreso than coffee which remains a sole morning proclivity, so having an extra large pot, as opposed to a measly bag in a cup, inevitably made our evening.

Tea is a very British institution, despite it being grown mainly in China. The word tea derives from the early Chinese dialect words, Tchai, Cha and Tay, used to describe the beverage and leaf. Its widespread use, according to legend, can be attributable to Buddhist priests journeying from China and Japan to the rest of the world.

According to George Orwell, tea is one of the mainstays of civilisation. He even devised 11 tea rules, including the controversial one which stated that one must "add the milk to the tea, not vice versa". And it was tea's milky charms, the first response in a crisis for many a stout Briton, that did indeed provide constant “cheer and vigour” for Edmund Hillary during his ascent of Everest in 1953 allegedly.

Most of the buildings across the globe wouldn’t have been built if it hadn’t been for the regular morning and afternoon tea breaks for those hard-working builders. And likewise in the everyday world of work, and the office, professional life as we know it would have come to a crashing halt, as would the world, if it weren’t for tea.

Despite claims that in 21st Century Britain the traditional cup of tea is in decline, no doubt pushed aside in favour of herbal, fruit and speciality upstart cousins, the old-fashioned type will always be a source of warm comfort for myself, and millions of others. Apparently, the late politician Tony Benn would drink a pint of the stuff an hour. And who can forget C.S. Lewis - a man after my own heart - who said: "You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."

Increasing amounts of scientific research also testifies to the health benefits of tea - all teas, whether it be black, green, white, herbal infusions and others. Studies have found that those who drink plentiful amounts can enjoy a reduced risk of certain chronic diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Apparently, the substances in tea associated with benefiting the human body and fighting off disease are called polyphenols, mainly flavonoids.

And with pubs on the decline across the land, and the exponential rise of cafes and tearooms, there is no excuse not to frequently immerse oneself in the power of tea and reap the benefits from a good old cuppa. So sing it loud - a nice brew is not just restorative to the soul, but good for our mental, emotional, social and physical health too.

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Back in Denmark, sitting before a magnificent silver tray with fine china cups and saucers, and a rather splendid teapot in the hotel room got me thinking about the whole process of making a cup of Rosy Lee, and the ritualistic aspect of the exercise. Tea as a spiritual experience? It’s not such a far-fetched notion.

The boiling of the water, the use of the teapot for brewing, or traditionally the tea leaves in a strainer, the pouring into a cup on a delicate saucer, followed by a wee dash of milk and, if necessary, a little sugar. The concentration it requires. The consistency of the liquid. Strong or weak. One lump or two. And then the choice of dunking a Hob Nob or a Jammy Dodger, or some other perennial classic accompaniment.

It’s akin to the pomp and ceremony of a catholic mass. And that’s even before the pleasure brought about from when that first drop of warm liquid touches the lips. As William Gladstone once intoned about the nation's favourite drink: “If you are depressed, it will cheer you”. How right he was.

National Tea Day takes place this weekend. Find out more about tea and the events taking place near you at: https://www.nationalteaday.co.uk/

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