I've never wanted to do a "tea service" at a fancy place. A bit too much royalty for my bones. No matter how hard I try, my mouth opens when I chew. I wipe my fingers on the right side of my clothes and sometimes specks of food linger on my lips. None of this is conducive to sitting in a duchess slant, picking up a dainty cup with pinky in the air.
Today we opted to go to a tea service because you have got do everything that makes you uncomfortable - within reason - at least once in your life. Today was "once".
Like many other things in the world, tea originated in China. The emperor Shen Nung was sitting under a tree in 2737 BC when his servant brought him boiled water to drink. A few leaves from the Camllia Sinensis tree above him blew into his tea and that was the genesis of the hot drink we love to sip.
Under the Tang dynasty (618-987 AD), tea became a recreational drink and it spread to nearby countries. Until the 1500s, tea was compressed into cakes and embossed with intricate designs. These cakes were as valuable as currency. Then came steeped tea and along with it teapots of all shapes, sizes, and designs. In the 1700s the British added handles to the bowls to create the modern day cup. Thanks to the ingenuity of an American tea merchant by the name of Thomas Sullivan, tea bags arrived in the early 1900s.
Tea was introduced to India in the 1800s by the British to provide competition to the Chinese. The Brits used Chinese tea and techniques to develop the first tea ("chai") plantation in northeast India. Visiting a plantation like this one in Assam (picture from google) is definitely on my tea-list.
Although the Chinese and Indians consume the most tea as nations, they do not not top the per capita statistic. That distinction goes to - hold your breath - Turkey. They apparently adore tea.
The history of tea service dates back to the mid-1800s when the Seventh Duchess of Bedford, Anna, got hungry between lunch and dinner and introduced tea and goodies at 4pm to tide over her hunger pangs. Tea service quickly caught on to show off ornate tea sets, some inherited, others acquired, in silver gold and ceramic along with the finest in gowns, suits, gloves, and hats.
At The Drake Hotel in Chicago, we showed up for tea service, way before tea time and in khakis and tees. I have no doubt that the groan we heard while being seated was Duchess Anna turning in her grave.
The sweet and savory finger foods were delicious and perfectly complimented the long list of teas: Darjeeling, Big Ben, The des Lords (Earl Grey), Lapsang Souchong, Montagne Bleue, Thé Des Vahinés, Chai Imperial in addition to a page of herbal teas.
We spent a couple of hours enjoying the tea service, the amazing flower arrangements, and the harpist playing popular covers. It wasn't uncomfortable at all. I might even want to do this again.
From black tea to milk tea to sweet tea to masala tea, we have experimented a lot through the centuries. My only gripe is that Starbucks calls their tea "Chai Tea". That's like saying "Tea Tea", which is beyond absurd. But who is paying attention to Anna or me?!