Tea was first imported into Europe by the Dutch East-India Company, in the early part of the seventeenth century; but it was not until the year 1666 that a small quantity was brought over from Holland to England by the Lords Arlington and Ossory: and yet, from a period earlier than any to which the memories of any of the existing generation can reach, tea has been one of the principal necessaries of life among all classes of the community. To provide a sufficient supply of this aliment, many thousand tons of shipping are annually employed in trading with a people by whom all dealings with foreigners are merely tolerated; and from this recently-acquired taste, a very large and easily-collected revenue is obtained by the state.
The tea-plant is a native of China or Japan, and probably of both. It has been used among thenatives of the former country from time immemorial. It is only in a particular tract of the Chinese em-pire that the plant is cultivated; and this tract, which is situated on the eastern side, between the 30th and 33d degrees of north latitude, is distinguished by the natives as ” the tea country.” The more northern part of China would be too cold; and farther south the heat would be too great. There are, however, a few small plantations to be seen near to Canton.
The Chinese give to the plant the name of tcha or tha. It is propagated by them from seeds, which are deposited in rows four or five feet asunder; and so uncertain is their vegetation, even in their native climate, that it is found necessary to sow as many as seven or eight seeds in every hole. The ground between each row is always kept free from weeds, and the plants are not allowed to attain a higher growth than admits of the leaves being conveniently gathered. The first crop of leaves is not collected until the third year after sowing ; and when the trees are six or seven years old, the produce becomes so inferior that they are removed to make room for a fresh succession.
The flowers of the tea-tree are white, and some-what resemble the wild rose of our hedges: these flowers are succeeded by soft green berries or pods, containing each from one to three white seeds. The plant will grow in either low or elevated situations, but always thrives best and furnishes leaves of the finest quality when produced in light stony grou nd.
The leaves are gathered from one to four times during the year, according to the age of the trees. Most commonly there are three periods of gathering; the first commences about the middle of April; the second at Midsummer; and the last is accomplished during August and September. The following cut of tea-gathering is from a Chinese drawing. The leaves that are earliest gatheredare of the most delicate color and most aromatic flavor, v ith the least portion of either fibre or bitterness Leaves of the second gathering are of a dull green color, and have less valuable qualities than the former; while those which are last collected are of a dark green, and possess an inferior value. The quality is thither influenced by the age of the wood on which the leaves are borne, and by the degree of exposure to which they have been accustomed; leaves from young wood, and those most exposed, being always the best.
The leaves, as soon as gathered, are put into wide shallow baskets, and placed in the air or wind, or sunshine, during some hours. They are then placed on a flat cast-iron pan, over a stove heated with charcoal, from a half to three quarters of a pound of leaves being operated on at one time.
These leaves are stirred quickly about with a kind of brush, and are then as quickly swept off the pan into baskets. The next process is that of rolling, which is effected by carefully rubbing them between men’s hands; after which they are again put, in larger quantities, on the pan, and subjected anew to heat, but at this time to a lower degree than at first, and just sufficient to dry them effectually without risk of scorching. This effected, the tea is placed on a table and carefully picked over, every unsightly or imperfectly-dried leaf that is detected being removed from the rest, in order that the sample may present a more even and a better appearance when offered for sale.
The names by which some of the principal sorts of tea are known in China, are taken from the places in which they are produced, while others are distinguished according to the periods of their gathering, the manner employed in curing, or other extrinsic circumstances. It is a commonly received opinion, that the distinctive color of green tea is imparted to It by sheets of copper, upon which it is dried. For this belief there is not, however, the smallest foundation in fact, since copper is never used for the purpose. Repeated experiments have been made to discover, by an unerring test, whether the leaves of green tea contain any impregnation of copper, but in no case has any trace of this metal been detected.
The Chinese do not use their tea until it is about a year old, considering that it is too actively narcotic when new. Tea is yet older when it is brought into consumption in England, as, in addition to the length of time occupied in its collection and trans-port to that country, the East-India Company are obliged by their charter to have always a supply sufficient for one year’s consumption in their London warehouses; and this regulation, which enhances the price to the consumer, is said to have been made by way of guarding in some measure against the inconveniences that would attend any interruption to a trade entirely dependant upon the caprice of an arbitrary government.
The people of China partake of tea at all their meals, and frequently at other times of the day. They drink the infusion prepared in the same manner as we employ, but they do not mix with it either sugar or milk. The working classes in that country are obliged to content themselves with a very weak infusion. Mr. Anderson, in his Narrative of Lord Macartney’s Embassy, relates that the natives in attendance never failed to beg the tea-leaves remaining after the Europeans had breakfasted, and with these, after submitting them again to boiling water, they made a beverage which they acknowledged was better than any they could ordinarily obtain.