The New East India Company
The Company that helped shape Britain’s consumption and traditions is now reborn…
WORDS BY MARIANNE VOYLE
Hidden away from the bustle of London’s Regent Street is a grand store gleaming with rows of enticing, luxurious food and drink products from India. After 135 years of company inactivity, this store was opened in 2010 to continue the legacy of one of the most powerful, commercial trading companies in the world. This is a monument that celebrates the British East India Company, but it is not all that remains of its creation in 1600…
The East India Company was founded by a Royal Charter from Elizabeth I to allow merchants to import and export produce in Britain and Asia. Hundreds began their hazardous voyages overseas to attain goods such as cotton and fine spices in exchange for British cloth. Spices were particularly rare as they added a unique taste and aroma to plain foods, but something equally high in value was also about to impact on Britain’s culture and consumption.
Dr Margaret Makepeace, Lead Curator at the East India Company records, told Chaat! that, “In July 1664 the Company’s Directors presented King Charles II with a silver case containing oil of cinnamon and ‘some good thea’ from Indonesia.”
“Tea drinking then began as an exotic fashion amongst the social elite in Britain,” she continues. “The leisured classes developed a kind of ‘tea ceremony’ using porcelain tea pots, sugar bowls, milk jugs, slop dishes and plates imported from China by the East India Company. Demand for tea boomed once the Company had access to supplies from China and by the late eighteenth century tea accounted for more than 60% of the Company’s total trade.” As tea was usually consumed in the afternoons, it eventually became known as ‘afternoon tea.’
“Tea is Water Bewitched”
Today, this vibrant store is home to an array of 130 types of tea. Over a cup of Earl Grey, The Company’s friendly Tea Master, Lalith Lenadora, explains why he believes Britain consumes a massive 100,000 tonnes of tea per year. “There’s a commonly used saying in Britain that ‘a cup of tea makes everything better’ – as a nation we turn to tea in times of stress as it is a soothing and calming drink. We are all so busy these days, making a cup or pot of tea is about taking some time out to have a proper break.”
“I have lived with tea for 28 years of my life in Sri Lanka, and had opportunity to taste different types of delicate teas. At the height of my career I tasted over 200 cups a day. That itself is the secret of my passion for tea,” he says.
He explains that different types of teas are taken from the same plant, the Camellia Sinensis bush. To achieve the different flavours, tea is harvested in different countries and treated in a variety ways. The process of oxidization in tea is called ‘fermentation’. Like apples, the leaves gradually turn darker in colour when crushed and exposed, which is how black teas are created. To stop the process, they are then steamed or dried. Green teas are produced by preventing any fermentation, so it maintains its natural colour.
The East India Company arguably assisted in the UK’s love for spice and helped form the tea-drinking traditions that became a distinctive part of its national identity. The Company may only have its name sitting proudly above one store, but the impact of the East India Company is everywhere.