We’ve all become a little fixated on our next meal and on food in general during the last year and a half, which is understandable. Lockdown diversions included banana bread, sourdough, and slow cooking, which in some cases resulted in the so-called covid stone. I was not immune to such emphasis as a former professor of food science and nutrition, as I grew interested by the history of some of our most popular foods, as well as the far-reaching effects they had on the world, not just waistlines.
The Irish love with tea — Barrys or Lyons, the debate rages on – has pushed us to second place in the world in terms of consumption, surpassing even the United Kingdom. I had no idea, however, that the beverage’s fame was based on the world’s first and largest industrial espionage case.
Since time immemorial, tea farming has been a highly guarded Chinese secret, and they would only export the tea leaves in exchange for silver, not the plants or their cultivation.
The Turks, on the other hand, kept coffee cultivation, processing, and brewing a well-guarded secret.
To feed the English-speaking world’s unquenchable need for tea, the East India Trading Company first produced opium in India before smuggling it into China. The Chinese opium lords in turn paid the British in silver, which was used to pay for the tea to be shipped – a cyclical economy.
The Company, as it was known, realised that this was unsustainable and employed Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist with experience in China and fluency in Mandarin. Fortune toured throughout China’s key tea-growing districts, dressed in traditional attire and sporting a trendy long pigtail. He had enlisted the help of a group of locals to transport him in his curtained sedan.
His entourage would spend the silver on seedlings, mature tree bushes, tree husbandry, and tea-processing machinery. Fortune imported 20,000 tea plants, six skilled tea processors, and all the necessary farming and processing equipment to India. As a result, the Indian tea industry was born. Tea consumption increased in England, as did taxation and smuggling. England imported 22,000 pounds of tea in 1667, and it had risen to 32 million pounds two centuries later.