Sherlock Holmes and tea
Sherlock Holmes, the Great Detective is a real British icon. He belongs to the country, just like the telephone boots, the double-decker buses and the habit of the five-o’clock tea. This article deals with the history of tea and its role in British culture. We also try to show how tea drinking appears in the Canon. (Link: The original Canon)
Some data about the tea plant
More tea is consumed around the world than any other drink. The Latin name of the tea plant is Camellia sinensis. Carl Linneus gave it in 1753 to honor Jesuit monk Georg Kamel, who was a pharmacist and visited the Philippines on his missionary work. He also made some botanical researches. Tea is a native shrub in North Asia, Southwest Asia and in the Indian subcontinent. Its leaves are used to make the tasty drink loved by so many. Nowadays hundreds of varieties are grown. The properly slow growing of the plant occurs only when altitude and humidity are ideally combined. At higher elevation the quality of the tea is better.
Tea leaves contain several compounds: amino acids, carbohydrates, mineral matters, caffeine and polyphenols. The latter are the most responsible for the taste, but the caffeine content also has a part in it. Caffeine is one of the most important components of tea, it is a mild stimulant and activates the digesting enzymes. Black tea contains the highest amount of caffeine. Polyphenols slow down the working off of tea’s caffeine content, and because of this its effect lasts longer – that’s why tea is a better refreshment than coffee.
From the seeds of Camellia sinensis and Camellia oleifera a sweetish oil can be derived by pressing, which can be used for seasoning and cooking. In cosmetics it softens and nourishes the skin and it is great for hair grooming.
There are six varieties of tea based on the method of processing:
1. White: the new sprouts are picked, dehumidified and dried before they are fully bloomed. This type of tea is grown in Sri Lanka and some parts of China.
2. Green: the leaves are left to dry, but the fermentation is prevented by tempering.
3. Oolong: it is also called half-fermented. The most important thing is to process the leaves immediately, which are never crushed (all the other varieties consist of crushed leaves, that is made with flattening).
4. Black: processing happens in four basic steps – wilting, flattening, fermentation and heating
5. Flavoured/scented: green, oolong and black teas can be used for producing this variety. The additives that are responsible for the scent are added to the leaves just before packaging (these can be whole flowers, petals, essential oils and so on).
6. Pressed: the raw, green leaves are steamed, pressed to cakes or bricks, then dried.
The Chinese legend and the road of the tea
In 2737 B.C., Emperor Sen-nung was having a rest under a wild tea shrub. He had his bowl near him in which he was boiling water. A light breeze blew some leaves into the bowl. The brew was refreshing and invigorative – and tea was discovered, according to a Chinese legend. The first written evidence of tea originates from the third century before Christ, when a doctor recommended it to improve concentration and alertness. The period of the Tang dynasty (618-906) is referred to as the golden age of tea. It was used as a medicine, but people also enjoyed it as a refreshment. Chinese merchants brought it to Japan. The first supply arrived to Europe in the seventeenth century, with either Dutch or Portuguese transfer. Tzar Mihail received tea from the Emperor of China as a present in 1618. An agreement between the two countries was signed in 1689, which marked the beginning of regular trade. Caravans transported tea till 1903, and they needed 16-18 months to deliver. When the Trans-Siberian Railway was established, tea, silk and porcelain took only a week to arrive.
Tea in Great Britain
The first recorded appearance of tea in London is from 1658. Only two years later a long and detailed fact sheet had been published, listing its benefits. In 1662 King Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, who loved tea. She made tea drinking popular, at first among the aristocracy, because at that time tea was quite expensive and only richer people could afford it.
Men consumed tea in the coffee houses, while women drank tea in their homes. It caused a great stir that the Golden Lyon, which was founded by Thomas Twining, served both men and women in 1717 – at that time these institutions were frequented solely by men.
Tea became the most favourite British drink in the eighteenth century. Instead of coffee houses tea gardens and parks awaited the tea enthusiasts.
Five-o-clock tea and moustache cups
At first tea had been consumed at any time of the day, but mostly after the evening main meal – remember, tea helps digestion. The habit of afternoon tea originates from Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford, who began to eat pastries and drink tea during the period between lunch and dinner. In the course of time she invited her friends to these occasions, and the habit became fashionable throughout London. Then sandwiches were also served with tea. In line with the new habit porcelaine and silver tea-sets and table-linen appeared. All major porcelaine manufactures made beautiful sets, the most significant British ones were Coalport, Derby, Minton, Spode, Staffordshire, Wedgewood and Worchester.
A curiosity of the Victorian era was the moustache cup. It became widespread thanks to the British Army. Soldiers were required to have a moustache, which was cared for and shaped with wax. But hot drinks melted the wax and it dipped into the cup. Coffee or tea also discoloured the moustache. To avoid these, Harvey Adams came up with a cup in 1860, which had a ledge/shelf, called a moustache guard. Between the rim and the side of the cup there was a semi-circular opening, which prevented tea or coffee to touch the moustache. Moustache cups spreaded quickly throughout the continent. Between 1920 and 1930 wearing a moustache went out of fashion, so there was lesser demand for the special cups.
The further history of tea
People drank more and more tea in Great Britain, but to import it from China was very expensive and the country could only offer cotton in exchange what Chinese did not need. From 1800 opium was the solution, what was cultivated in Bengalia by the British East India Company.
In 1840 Great Britain declared war against China, so the country had to buy tea from somewhere else. In 1823 it was discovered that there are some native tea shrubs in Upper Assam, and the first plantations were founded. The Assam Tea Company had been established in 1840, and from the 1870s Ceylon became a British tea growing region as well.
People could only enjoy their tea at home, because the parks they used to frequent for tea drinking were closed. The first tea-room was opened in 1864, and these places also offered different kinds of food and tea accessories.
Exclusive hotels started to organize afternoon teas in their halls and winter gardens during the Edwardian era (1901-1914). Guests were awaited by a three-course meal and music.
After Word War I and II the popularity of tea drinking decreased, and was typical at homes and workplaces. The 1980s brought some change, tea-rooms, teashops and salons were in the heart of interest again, and drinking tea in public became fashionable once more.
Sherlock Holmes drinks tea
The famous detective surely drank tea. Although the exact variety is not named in the Canon, at that time the smoky, aromatic Lapsang Suchong was very popular. It was the favored tea of Winston Churchill, and it’s quite possible that Sherlock liked it too. Some say Holmes loved this variety because he was a heavy smoker and the tea has a smoky flavour, thanks to the fact that it is withered and dried above pine embers. According to tea experts this tea suits to almost everything. You can drink it to
- English breakfast
- light dishes
- spicy food
- matured cheese
- meat and game
Many blends are marketed with the name of the sleuth. These are usually compiled to include something British (for example, English Breakfast tea), something smoky (referring to Sherlock’s habit of smoking), and possibly something to stimulate the brain (like gingko or elderflower). But one can say about almost every smoky, aromatic tea variety that Holmes would have loved it.
According to the site I Hear Of Sherlock Everywhere coffee is mentioned 17 times in the Canon, while there are 15 references to tea. For example, we can read in The Greek Interpreter:
’It was after tea on a summer evening, and the conversation, which had roamed in a desultory, spasmodic fashion from golf clubs to the causes of the change in the obliquity of the ecliptic, come round at last to the question of atavism and hereditary aptitudes.’
In The Naval Treaty:
’The table was all laid, and, just as I was about to ring, Mrs. Hudson entered with the tea and coffee.’
Different beautiful tea-sets often appear in the various adaptations as well, or we can see Holmes, Watson or both of them drinking tea. There are amazing tea-sets in the Granada series too. In The Devil’s Foot (Link: The Devil’s Foot and William Blake) we can see Sherlock drinking from a lovely cup adorned with a butterfly. In the episodes The Abbey Grange, The Bruce Partington Plans and The Boscombe Valley Mystery the detective mentions that he doesn’t want milk in his tea. In the latter there’s a funny scene. Holmes, Watson and Inspector Summerby go to interrogate the game-keeper, who prepares some tea. He pours milk to simple mugs when Holmes says he drinks his tea without milk. The game-keeper spills the milk from one mug, then pours tea into it without swilling. Jeremy Brett takes the mug and makes a quirky grimace (In Doyle’s original story Lestrade investigates the case, and the game-keeper is mentioned only in the interrogation report as a witness).
In BBC's The Blind Banker we can see a "connection" to the habit of tea drinking. When a ceramics expert disappears, Sherlock is the only one who figures out that she still must be in the museum. And how he deduces that? He notices that the ancient clay teapots are damp - they have to be kept moist to avoid cracking and/or breaking.
Drinking tea is good. It is even better to drink tea and read (Link: The importance of reading) or watch the adventures of our favourite sleuth. Have a nice time!
ALL RIGHT RESERVED.
Date of publication: 07/07/2021
Note: the main source of information for this article was the book
The Connoisseur’s Guide to Tea by Jane Pettigrew (Apple Press, London, 2007).
Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories
Jeremy Brett and the Granada series