The Great British Tea Heist

Botanist Robert Fortune traveled to China and stole trade secrets of the tea industry, discovering a fraud in the process

Among botanist Robert Fortune's tasks in China was to learn the procedure for manufacturing tea, as shown in this 18th century tea plantation. (The Granger Collection, New York)

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The sun-baked leaves were then taken to a furnace room and tossed into an enormous pan—what amounted to a very large iron wok. Men stood working before a row of coal furnaces, tossing the contents of their pans in an open hearth. The crisp leaves were vigorously stirred, kept constantly in motion, and became moist as the fierce heat drew their sap toward the surface. Stir-frying the leaves in this way breaks down their cell walls, just as vegetables soften over high heat.

The cooked leaves were then emptied onto a table where four or five workers moved piles of them back and forth over bamboo rollers. They were rolled continuously to bring their essential oils to the surface and then wrung out, their green juice pooling on the tables. “I cannot give a better idea of this operation than comparing it to a baker working and rolling his dough,” Fortune recalled.

Tightly curled by this stage, the tea leaves were not even a quarter the size they had been when picked. A tea picker plucks perhaps a pound a day, and the leaves are constantly reduced through processing so that the fruits of a day’s labor, which filled a basket carried on a tea picker’s back, becomes a mere handful of leaves—the makings of a few ounces or a few cups of brewed tea. After rolling, the tea was sent back to the drying pans for a second round of firing, losing even more volume at every contact with the hot sides of the iron wok.

With leaves plucked, dried, cooked, rolled, and cooked again, all that was left to do was sort through the processed tea. Workers sat at a long table separating the choicest, most tightly wound leaves—which would be used in the teas of the highest quality, the flowery pekoes—from the lesser-quality congou and from the dust, the lowest quality of all.

The quality of tea is partly determined by how much of the stem and rougher lower leaves are included in the blend. The highest-quality teas, which in China might have names like Dragon Well, or in India FTGFOP1 (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe First Grade), are made from the topmost two leaves and the bud at the end of each tea branch. The top shoots taste delicate and mild, and are only slightly astringent; therefore the most pleasant and refreshing.

The distinctive quality of tea comes from essential oils that leach flavor and caffeine into a cup of hot water. These chemical compounds are not necessary for the primary survival of the tea plant’s cells; they are what is known as secondary compounds. Secondary chemicals help plants in many different respects, such as defending them against pests, infections, and fungus, and aiding them in their fight for survival and reproduction. Tea, like other green plants, has several defense systems against predators: Caffeine, for instance, is a natural insecticide. Almost all of tea’s thick waxy leaves, apart from the topmost shoots, are bitter and leathery and difficult to bite through. Tea also has hard, fibrous stalks to discourage animal incursion. Clumsy pickers can compromise the quality of tea by including a leaf farther down the stem and even some of the stem itself; this will make for a harsher, more tannic brew, and in China it will be qualified by names suggesting crudeness, such as dust.

The workers sat at long low tables to pick through the leaves and sort out any pieces of stem. They also looked for any insects that might have tainted the batch, as well as small stones and pieces of grit from the factory floor. Even with a measure of quality control, tea was not a clean product in any sense, which is one of the reasons that Chinese tea drinkers traditionally discard the first cup from any pot. “The first cup is for your enemies,” the saying goes among connoisseurs.

Culinary historians know nothing about who first put leaf to water. But where human knowledge has failed, human imagination has inserted itself. Many Chinese believe that tea was discovered by the mythical emperor Shennong, inventor of Chinese medicine and of farming. The story goes that one day the emperor was reclining in the leafy shade of a camellia bush when a shiny leaf dropped into his cup of boiled water. Ripples of light green liquor soon began to emerge from the thin, feathery leaf. Shennong was familiar with the healing properties of plants and could identify as many as seventy poisonous plants in a daylong hike. Convinced that the camellia tisane was not dangerous, he took a sip of it and found that it tasted refreshing: aromatic, slightly bitter, stimulating, and restorative.

Ascribing the discovery of tea to a revered former leader is a characteristically Confucian gesture—it puts power in the hands of the ancestors and links the present day to the mythic past. But Buddhists in China have their own creation story for tea, featuring Siddhartha Gautama (Gautama Buddha). As a traveling ascetic, legend tells us, the young monk Siddhartha was wandering on a mountain, perfecting his practice, and praying without ceasing. The weary supplicant sat down by a tree to meditate, to contemplate the One and the many faces of redemption, and promptly fell asleep. When he awoke, he was furious at his own physical weakness; his body had betrayed him, his eyes were leaden, and drowsiness had interfered with his quest for Nirvana.

In a fit of rage and determined that nothing would again impede his path to Truth and Enlightenment, he ripped out his eyelashes and cast them to the wind, and in all the places they fell sprang forth a fragrant and flowering bush: the tea plant. Indeed, the fine, silvery down on the undersides of the highest-quality tea leaves resembles delicate eyelashes. Buddha, all great and compassionate, bequeathed to his followers a draft that would keep them aware and awake, invigorated and focused, an intoxicant in the service of devotion.


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