Confessions of a tea traveller

A journey of a thousand li, as the Chinese so wisely say, begins with the first step.

My own first step as a writer was The Gunpowder Gardens: Travels through India and China in Search of Tea, published in America as A Time for Tea. I always preferred the English title, though on the face of it the American one made more sense. Neither, actually, told a reader what the book was about.

The gunpowder, of course, was a tea: the famous China green tea, rolled to a tight ball and the tighter and smaller, the better. It was named by 18th century Western traders for its resemblance to lead shot – an awful lot of which was fired off during the Opium Wars of the 19th century, which were fought, in some part, to keep the West supplied with China tea.

The gardens referred to the plantations of tea, in China and Darjeeling, which were known as tea gardens; and to the pleasurable places in London and elsewhere where tea could be served with flirtation and conversation.

The Gunpowder Gardens explores those worlds, those wars, those places – and the people and the teas.

Tibetans traditionally do not measure their journeys in miles, for the going may be steep, and the way hard; or it may be level and easy. They refer, instead, to a tea measure, depending on the amount of tea they will need to drink before they arrive at their destination.  A one-, or a ten-cup, journey.

Twenty two years later I am still a writer and still a tea lover, and it has been, in the Tibetan phrase, a 90,000-cup journey at least. I wake up with tea, I work with tea, and I go to bed on it. I have become just like Dr Samuel Johnson, ‘a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant ; whose kettle had scarcely time to cool; who with tea amused the evening, with tea solaced the midnight, and with tea welcomed the morning.’

But what tea? Ah, in that bright morning when I wrote The Gunpowder Gardens I was young, and particular, and it was all leaf, and I amused the evening and solaced the midnight with Darjeelings and the smoky flavours of Lapsang Souchong. I drank green teas, too.

Now, after all these years, I still have a rosewood caddy of Lapsang and Darjeeling, lined in lead; but beside it there’s a box – no, a tin, a tea tin, with a special lid – full of tea bags. The tea in the tea bags is mostly African, I guess: one week it will be PG, another, Clipper Fairtrade Good Ordinary Tea. It’s so-called builder’s tea – strong and drunk with milk. Sometimes the bags are a funny shape. Hats off, I say now, to the blenders who manage to make tea that instantaneously becomes bright and liquory and strong.

Next to it I have a tin of Twinings’ Earl Grey. Tea bags. For the working afternoon.

So if someone drops in I mostly ask: PG or EG? Poised with the kettle, and the mugs. I got this habit from a friend from Birmingham, and it seems to cover the same ground as the old question: China or India?

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