Monday, 7 October 2019

For all the tea in China

A British institution since the 17th Century, tea has developed an entire culture and set of practices around it, including porcelain - translucent, glazed, and heat-resistant - which originally came from China as ballast in ships importing tea. 

In the 1660s, everything Chinese suddenly became fashionable, and people wanted to not only drink tea, but also use tea drinking paraphernalia, such as teapots and cups (though the Chinese ones lacked handles). China itself is called china simply after the nation which first produced it. 

Chinese porcelain became so popular, it was known as "white gold", and - as there were already continental manufacturers - the race was on for someone in Britain to replicate it. Lund’s in Bristol made a quality breakthrough by adding soapstone (talc) to clay, becoming the earliest manufacturer of soapstone porcelain in the UK. Later bone ash was added by the manufacturer, Bow, which is the source of the name, 'bone china'. Initially, people had a 'dish of tea', until local manufacturers made local porcelain cups, like the existing pottery cups, with handles.

But also interesting is the reason why tea is poured one of two ways: tea first, or milk first. The former is posh, the latter is not. Apparently it is all to do with the quality of the china being used to drink from: fine porcelain can cope with the shock of hot liquid, but poorer quality china cannot. To buffer poorer quality china and avoid it cracking, we put milk in first. Porcelain costs a heck of a lot more than ordinary china: so wealthy people can pour hot tea directly into their expensive cups without risk of the ceramic cracking.

While the aristocracy could afford to buy porcelain, ordinary working folk would not have had the purchasing power for even a single cup and saucer when porcelain was originally being made in the UK. As the BBC documentary noted below mentions, porcelain has an immensely desirable "quality that was desirable and that's thermal shock resistance", which leads us to "the origin of the two types of tea drinking styles: the poor people have to put the milk in first so that the cup doesn't shatter, and the aristocracy who can afford the best quality China, they can pour their boiling tea straight into the cup" (25 May 2017, 6:27).

Class division in the UK goes right back to the origins of British tea drinking. Fascinating. 


Sam

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