Jenny McCartney Jenny McCartney

Fascinating: Radio 4’s Empire of Tea reviewed

Plus: one of the most riveting, and occasionally moving, podcasts of the year

Wedgwood teapot from the 18th century. Photo: Heritage Images / Getty Images

I can scarcely remember a time before tea: I started drinking it at around four, at home in Belfast, as a reward after school. Before long I was as fiercely protective of my right to a brew as the workers of British Leyland’s Birmingham car plant, who were famously spurred to strike action in 1981 when the management proposed cutting tea breaks by 11 minutes. Decades on, my passion is undiminished. There is no problem to which tea is not at least a partial solution: it restores flagging spirits, calms the over-excited, warms in winter and refreshes in summer.

Sathnam Sanghera’s recollections in his Radio 4 five-parter Empire of Tea suggest a similarly close relationship with the beverage, except that his childhood version in Wolverhampton was Punjabi ‘cha’: tea boiled up with milk and spices. Here he traces tea’s fascinating story across centuries, continents and class boundaries. When researching his history of the British Empire, Empireland, he said, ‘tea kept cropping up…like this Forrest Gump character’. It arrived in England from China in the 1660s, an exotic, expensive product dispensed by wealthy show-offs. The wife of diarist Samuel Pepys sampled it, the podcast tells us; Pepys himself, an enthusiastic coffee-drinker, seemed lukewarm about the new ‘China drink’.

As the market grew, and tea fell in price, Chinese teapots were replaced by ‘English-looking’ Wedgwood ones. The British branding of tea was beginning, and it succeeded beyond any advertiser’s wildest dreams. When Sanghera interviews staff today in Wolverhampton’s New Cross hospital, they discuss their tea-break tastes with the note of precisely recalled pleasure that others might reserve for romantic trysts. ‘I like a good strong cup of builder’s tea,’ muses a nurse; ‘Assam for preference,’ adds a doctor. The more hard-pressed someone is at work, the more intensely tea matters.

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