We all know how the English love their tea. It’s the ultimate stereotype; an English person sat clutching their precious cup of tea, probably a biscuit or two balanced beside it. And although it is not good to stereotype, this particular one is in the high majority of cases, completely accurate (and as an English person myself I can say this!) Of course tea doesn’t come from England, we have China, and later India, to thank for the many variations of delicious drinks we enjoy today. However another unexpected debt is owed to Portugal, specifically the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, who following her marriage to England’s King Charles II in 1662, became Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland and played a large but little known role in popularising the beverage.
1. Catherine of Braganza
Catherine of Braganza was the daughter of Portugal’s King John IV, and came to England as Queen bringing with her a very large dowry which included money, spices and treasures as well as the wealthy Tangiers and Bombay ports. It is said that amongst her personal belongings was also loose-leaf tea, likely another addition to her dowry. Legend has it that the crates carrying the leaves were marked Transporte de Ervas Aromaticas (Transport of Aromatic Herbs), later abbreviated to T.E.A., although this part is unlikely and etymologists actually believe the word ‘tea’ came from a transliteration of a Chinese character.
Nevertheless, at that time tea drinking was already popular among the Portuguese aristocracy thanks to the country’s direct trade line to China via its colony in Macau, formed in the mid-1500s. At the time, although tea was drunk in England it was done so only as a medicine, believed to invigorate the body and keep the spleen clean. The new glamorous Queen arrived in England and likely continued her habit of tea drinking, which she was accustomed to in her homeland, popularising the beverage as a social drink rather than purely medicinal. Sarah-Beth Watkins, author of Catherine of Braganza: Charles II’s Restoration Queen, describes the attention surrounding Queen Catherine and the way people desired to be like her, copying her fashions and importantly her love of tea. Poet of the time Edmund Waller even wrote a birthday ode to the Portuguese Queen not long after she arrived, demonstrating the important link between her and the fashionable status of England’s favourite drink.
The best of Queens, and best of herbs, we oweEdmund Waller, poet
To that bold nation, which the way did show
To the fair region where the sun doth rise,
Whose rich productions we so justly prize.
2. A new trend
Tea was extremely expensive at the time, but the aristocracy wanted to be like the Queen and the popularity of tea drinking as a social activity increased until by the end of the 17th Century, the elite of society were drinking small amounts of tea. They were also drinking, as they had seen China do, from delicate and expensive porcelain cups and teapots. With Portugal being a major route for importing porcelain to Europe, Queen Catherine likely popularised this too, with porcelain likely having been included in her dowry also. Queen Catherine’s liking for tea and her beautiful porcelain tea accessories became associated with fine living, a display of wealth and status that soon every English aristocrat aspired to.
3. The Queen’s tea
The history of Queen Catherine and her role in popularising the quintessential English drink is a little known story, however Mario Custódio, general manager at Tivoli Palácio de Seteais Sintra Hotel in Sintra, Portugal, is determined to change this. In 2017 he launched a special afternoon tea in honour of Catherine, which offers a delicious yet educational afternoon tea experience to hotel customers. The daily tea service, which is open exclusively to hotel guests, highlights aspects of the Portuguese connection to the English tradition of high tea, and customers receive an informative booklet which includes QR codes for access to more photos, historical facts and fun stories about the fascinating history.
Custódio also worked with a historian to serve the type of tea Catherine would have drank, believed to have been a green tea as black tea only arrived from India much later on in the 1830s. Based on Custódio’s research, Marmalade is also be part of the menu as this is another Catherine of Braganza mythology. Legend has it that Catherine regularly had oranges from Portugal, which were some of the best in the world, shipped over to her new English home, and the ones damaged on the journey were turned into marmalade. While whole oranges were a prized snack, marmalade was less so, meaning if Queen Catherine gifted you marmalade instead of oranges, she wasn’t very keen on you. The themed tea service is designed to combine enjoyment with a sharing of a history and culture that is little known, about the influence of one Portuguese born Queen on the drinking habits of an entire nation.