When we think about England, we think directly about tea.
Tea is so utterly English, such an ingrained part of the culture, that it’s also ingrained in how everyone else around the world perceives that culture.
Tea is such an ingrained part of the culture, that it’s also ingrained in how everyone else around the world perceives that culture
And while it’s fairly common knowledge that Westerners have China to thank for the original cultivation of the tannic brew, it’s far less known that it was the Portuguese who inspired its popularity in England – in particular, one Portuguese woman.
Travel back in time to 1662, when Catherine of Braganza (daughter of Portugal’s King John IV) won the hand of England’s newly restored monarch, King Charles II, with the help of a very large dowry that included money, spices, treasures and the lucrative ports of Tangiers and Bombay. This hookup made her one very important lady: the Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland.
When she relocated up north to join King Charles, she is said to have packed loose-leaf tea as part of her personal belongings; it would also have likely been part of her dowry. A fun legend has it that the crates were marked Transporte de Ervas Aromaticas (Transport of Aromatic Herbs) – later abbreviated to T.E.A.
That last bit probably isn’t true (etymologists believe the word ‘tea’ came from a transliteration of a Chinese character), but what is for sure is that tea was already popular among the aristocracy of Portugal due to the country’s direct trade line to China via its colony in Macau, first settled in the mid-1500s (visit today to sample the other end of this culinary exchange, the Portuguese pastéis de nata, aka egg custard tarts).
When Catherine arrived in England, tea was being consumed there only as a medicine, supposedly invigorating the body and keeping the spleen free of obstructions. But since the young queen was used to sipping the pick-me-up as part of her daily routine, she no doubt continued her habit, making it popular as a social beverage rather than as a health tonic.
Everything from Catherine’s clothes to her furniture became the source of court talk
Hot poet of the time, Edmund Waller, even wrote a birthday ode to her shortly after her arrival, which forever linked the queen and Portugal with the fashionable status of tea in England. He wrote:
“The best of Queens, and best of herbs, we owe
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.”
To be fair, tea could be found in England before Catherine arrived, but it wasn’t very popular.
Tea was unusual because it was so expensive and everyone was drinking coffee at this time.
The reason for the cost was threefold: England had no direct trade with China; tea from India wasn’t around yet; and the small quantities that the Dutch were importing were sold at a very high premium.
Tea became associated with elite women’s sociability around the royal court, of which Catherine was the most famous emblem.”
And what happens with famous people? Non-famous people imitate them. When the queen does something, everyone wants to follow suit, so very, very gradually by the end of the 17th Century, the aristocracy had started sipping small amounts of tea.
Until tea arrived with the Dutch, the English didn’t know anything about tea. No sugar spoons, no cups, no tea kettles so they copied the entire ritual from China. They imported Chinese tiny porcelain tea bowls, the saucers, the dishes for sugar, the small teapots.
Catherine’s home country had a hand in in popularising this aspect of the tea experience, too. Portugal was one of the routes by which porcelain got to Europe,it was very expensive and very beautiful. Since it was so prized, porcelain was probably part of Catherine’s dowry, and, like other aristocratic ladies, she would have accrued many gorgeous trappings to pad out her tea sessions once she was living in England.
But tea was not the only introduction of Catarina de Bragança in England.
The knowledge of orange
Catarina loved oranges and never stopped eating them thanks to their baskets that her mother sent her.
The orange compote
That the English call “marmelade”, using, incorrectly, the Portuguese term marmalade (quince paste), because Portuguese marmalade had already been introduced in England in 1495.
Catarina kept the compote of normal oranges for herself and her friends and that of bitter oranges for enemies, especially for the king’s lovers.
Influenced the way of dressing
She introduced the short skirt. At that time, a short skirt was above the ankle and Catarina scandalized the English court for showing her feet.
She introduced the habit of wearing men’s clothes to ride.
The use of the fork to eat
In England, even at court, they ate with their hands, although the fork was already known, but only for carving or serving. Catarina was used to using it to eat, and soon everyone was doing the same.
Introduction of porcelain
She was surprised that they ate on gold or silver plates and asked why they did not eat on porcelain plates as they had done for many years in Portugal. From then on, the use of porcelain crockery became widespread.
An ensemble of Portuguese musicians was part of the retinue she took from Portugal and it was by her hand that the first opera in England was heard.
Catarina also took with her some furniture, including precious Indo-Portuguese accountants who had never been seen in England.
The birth of the “British Empire”
Catherine’s dowry was great for the amount of money but, much more important for the future, for including the city of Tangier, in North Africa and the island of Bombay, in India.
Betraying the Treaties they had assumed and with the excuse that the King of Portugal was Spanish, the English managed, despite the control of the Portuguese Navy, to sail to India where they created a warehouse in Gujarat.
In 1670, after receiving Bombay from the Portuguese, King Carlos II authorized the East India Company to acquire territories.
Thus, the British Empire was born!
Its popularity extended to America, where one of the five neighborhoods of New York (Queens) was named after her.