Curiosity killed the cat or didn’t

I am always looking for old books or old references to tea, both because I like history/books and because I like tea. I must confess that I am lucky to have a habit that allows to mix both (it would be nearly impossible I was a deep hardcore Star Trek fan or something like that).

Cover of the Encyclopédie

This allows me to sometimes find interesting things and I made such a discovery a few days ago as I found out that the original Encyclopédie was online and in a searchable version (it is not new but I hadn’t looked for it before), this Encyclopédie is the one written with the editing of Diderot and D’Alembert (two French philosophers), in the middle of the 18th century that was a representation of the thoughts of the “Lumières”. Out of curiosity, I looked to see if there was an article on tea and there were 3: two on plants and one on tea. The plants were the tea plant itself but this article contained only a description (with an indication to the reader that more was available in the “main” article) and a tea from the Antilles, that apart from sharing the same name (but for false reasons according to the article) has nothing in common with the tea.

I read the article on tea and I found interesting common mistakes or things that showed that some clichés were already common at that time or perhaps should I say that they have their roots even before the 18th century.

For example, Japanese workers plucking tea for the imperial tea had to avoid eating fish or meat, had to wash themselves 2 to 3 times a day in hot waters or in a river or as if it wasn’t enough had to pluck tea with gloves.

There seemed also to be a confusion between the tea plants in China or in Japan that were closely related but it seems not alike and that produced two different sort of quality (more on that later in this post).

According to the reports/books from that time, the tea plants didn’t need much space and were used as fence between rice fields or liked to grow in the most sterile places. Or the fresh leaves were known to have a special effect as they attacked the nerves and produced trembling, bad effects that seemed to disappear once the leaves were dry.

There are other information that left me puzzled: for example, tea is named theh by the Chinese and tsjaa or tsjanoki by the Japanese. I always had problems with the old designation of the tea varieties but it seems more complex than I thought and is not really linked to any name I know for tea and the way its name was brought back from China.

However, there are also some interesting things that are true or partly true. For example, the imperial tea (in Japan) was named ticki tsjaa or powder tea and according to how it was drunk, I think it was matcha, with the best coming from Udsi. This tea is said to be expensive because of the care taken all along the production chain with a kin (it seems this is a weight measure in Japan representing 600g) being paid 30 or 40 thaels or 42 to 46 écus, which converted in silver (this is how its value was determined would make between 1,285 g and 1,407 g, something between 530 and 620 euros or between 0.88 euro per gram and 1.03 euro per gram. Pretty impressive isn’t it? However I am not sure if this evaluation is to be trusted as evaluation in other monetary systems was a bit tricky.

The Chinese tea was divided and sold in 4 different qualities but drunk in a special way that reminded me of gong fu cha. The lowest quality was not given a name and was made of a mix of everything harvested without any intent to sort them. The third one was ban-tsjaa and was dried in stove and then hand-rolled. The second one is not mentioned or at least I couldn’t find any split in the text between the third and the Imperial tea (obviously the best one). The only difference in the production process was the care for the selection of leaves and the fact that it was more dried and then made into dust.

Apart from the text on the usual wonderful medical effect of tea (this drink was already a panacea, something that we all know) with the “once you tried it, you cannot stop drinking tea” sentence, there is also an indication that at the time of the writing, 8 to 10 millions French pounds of tea were sold in Europe yearly, something between 4,000 and 5,000 tons. Out of curiosity, I looked at the statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organisation and in 2016, Europe imported 518,778 tons.

This might seem impressive but since I have no clue how the author of the article on tea found this figure, I will avoid drawing conclusions.

Regarding this old saying that I used as title for this post, I think that we can agree that today, curiosity didn’t kill the cat and allowed it to find something quite interesting.

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