As you probably remember, the rest of the team and I are
twiddling our collective green thumbs until picking season is upon us, so I’ve
been spending some time with Jason Goodwin’s A Time for Tea, which Chris
mentioned in our last post. Since the book is hard to find, I thought I’d share
some of what I’ve learned from it.
Turns out some of the blame for the long-standing myth
that black tea (above right) and green tea (above left) came from different species of plant surely must fall on the Englishman John Hill, self-proclaimed philosopher, actor, gardener, and pamphleteer (depending on what he ate for breakfast that day, I suppose).
Donning his botanist hat, Hill published Treatise on Tea in 1753, which claimed
that Thea virdis was the plant behind green tea and Thea bohea the plant behind
black tea. Carl Linnaeus, a legitimate botanist and the father of modern
ecology, had himself just published a book, his Species Plantarum, that Goodwin
says “contained the sum of current knowledge about tea.” Led to believe Hill
was an authority on tea, Linnaeus “corrected” the book’s second edition with
Hill’s misinformation, affirming (mistakenly, of course) that Camellia was an
entirely separate, unrelated genus.
At that time, China was closed to Westerners, so no one
from Europe or the Americas could confirm whether the difference lay in the
“bush itself” (as Goodwin says) or in the “manipulation of the leaf, or in the
air or the climate or the soil or in a combination.” In 1848, Samuel Ball,
former Inspector of Teas to the Honourable East India Company, published the
truth that green and black teas differ only in their “manufacture.” But it
wasn’t till 1905 that a consensus was established by the International Code of
Botanical Nomenclature, which declared all “Theas” to be the same as
“Camellias.” And today we know tea’s true name to be Camellia sinensis.
We can’t start picking the tea leaves here until around
April—that’s when we expect to have enough new growth on the plants. But we’re
up to speed now on how to make our very own green and black teas, so stay tuned
as we pick, wilt, bruise, steam, dry, and sip.
By Sophie Egan, Sunset Team Tea member