H2O on the Rocks

When our daughter was very young, we were at a very nice restaurant, and calamity was very near: we told her she would be drinking water and not a soft drink.

But our server adroitly intervened, asking if she would instead like “H2O on the rocks.”

Would she ever! When it arrived, complete with maraschino cherry on a cocktail sword, she was enchanted.

June is National Iced Tea Month. A marketing ploy by the National Tea Council? Well, sure. But with summer’s heat upon us, anything tastes better on the rocks. And tea is especially refreshing, delicious, and healthy when iced!

But to make iced tea, you gotta have the rocks.

The Natural Stuff

Although natural ice and snow have been used for millennia to cool drinks (mainly wine), people also spent much of that time seeking ways to refine the process, building various types of structures to preserve ice and snow, for example.

And experimenting with how to artificially make ice.

Because, of course, chilled wine is ever so much more desirable when the weather is sweltering.

The Cool Factor of Saltpetre Discovered and then Lost

Enter saltpetre (potassium nitrate). As Kathryn Kane (2013) explains:

Both the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans, of the upper classes, used this white powder, dissolved in water, to cool their wines. It was an expensive commodity, fairly rare and difficult to find, and its use appears to have been limited only to the cooling of bottles of wine at important dinners. Though they were aware of the refrigerant capabilities of saltpetre, the Romans never seem to have used it to cool any other provisions or food stuffs. There were a number of chilled dishes on the menu at Roman banquets, but stored snow or ice was used to cool them. The knowledge of the cooling properties of saltpetre was lost in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. . . . However, it was known in the Arab world and was recorded in several Arabic manuscripts.

And Then Rediscovered by Europeans

iced tea 2In 1530, Dr. Marcus Antonius Zimara referred to using saltpeter as a cooling agent, and in 1550, physician Blasius Villafranca promoted its use to chill water and wine, “declaring that all the nobility and gentry of Rome now used the method” (David 1994).

Followed by Mechanical Refrigeration

Centuries later (in 1847), with the more altruistic motive of treating yellow fever, Florida physician John Gorrie developed a machine that both made ice and cooled air. Patented in 1851, the device didn’t succeed—especially with the press deriding the invention (create ice? blasphemous!).

However, a scant two decades later, mechanical refrigeration enabled the 1875 and 1876 shipments of frozen meat from America to England, followed by a shipment from Australia in 1880 that used a Bell-Coleman cold-air machine (Wallis-Tayler 1902). And ice harvesting from frozen ponds soon became a thing of the past.

And the Desire for the Perfect Block of Ice, Be It Small or Large

iced tea 1By 1902, Wallis-Taylor wrote an entire book that described the ways in which artificial ice could be commercially manufactured—and opined that the opacity often found in ice was “objectionable by reason of the less pleasing appearance,” with the goal being “clear, transparent, crystal ice.”

Soon after, in 1914, Fred Wolf developed an unsuccessful refrigerator that had an ice cube tray, but in 1933, Guy Tinkham’s ice cube tray for home use finally made it to the market, selling for fifty cents.

Today, with revived interest in classic cocktails, there is a new demand for “clear, transparent” ice, but in sizes to match specific cocktails. Such ice can be made by freezing water slowly; by freezing ice from the top down and using only the clear top layer; or by using a machine such as the Clinebell, which makes 300-pound blocks. The clear ice is then cut into specific sizes and shapes.

Tea on the Rocks

At my home, the opacity or clearness of my ice cubes makes little difference. From classic black to refreshing green to icy mint to tangy fruit blend—any tea is terrific when on the rocks!

–Bellis, M. “The history of ice cubes trays,” About, Inc.
–David, E. Harvest of the Cold Months, New York: Viking Penguin, 1995.
–English, C. “Freezer harvest: A history of ice cubes,” Modern Farmer. March 18, 2014.
–Kane, K. “Saltpetre: Regency refrigeration,” The Regency Redingote. August 9, 2013.
–Morse, M. S. “Chilly Reception,” Smithsonian Magazine. July 2002.
–Wallis-Tayler, A. J. Refrigeration, Cold Storage, and Ice-Making, London: Crosby Lockwood and Son. 1902.


Fujian Tea and How Tea Got Its Name

We may be able to readily conceive of a world without silk, and in this electronic age, possibly consider a world without paper—but to do without TEA? Unthinkable!!

And pretty much most of the ancient world agreed, as evidenced by the extensive Silk Roads and the recently confirmed 2,100-year-old tea leaves found at Xi’en in western China (see my previous post). Tea, along with silk and paper, was being transported far distances, both by overland routes and by sea. China’s Fujian Province, with its prime location on the East China Sea, played a leading role in trade.

The Tea Leaves of Fujian, or, The Tea Leaves Fujian

Fujian became part of the Chinese empire during the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC), and the region was trading with Arabs and Persians by 618 CE. During the Song Dynasty (907–1279), tea was being grown and produced in the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian.

By the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), silk, sugar, paper, and tea were all leaving Fujian’s ports as part of the maritime shipping routes into South East Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. Tea was also taking the months-long journey from Fujian into Russia via Mongolia. According to historians (Xinhua News Agency 2015), the largest China-Mongolia trade company at one time employed 7,000 workers and used 20,000 camels. With each camel capable of shouldering over 400 pounds of tea, that amounted to a whole lot of tea!

By this time, Europeans were also coming into the Fujian port of Xiamen.

Its Name Leaves with It, or, “Tea” vs “Cha”

As tea was sent out from China, its Chinese name traveled with it—unlike paper and silk, whose Chinese names did not stick with the items. According to Jerry Norman (2015):

English “tea” comes via Spanish from a Southern Miin form [te.sup.2]. . . . Another form exemplified by Mongolian cai, travelled westward through Inner Asia. Some have surmised that this form comes from Northern Chinese charyeh “tea leaves.” So we have two basic words for “tea,” the first of which spread through maritime trade and the second by overland transmission. Both of these basic terms for “tea” are from the same etymon, being no more than dialectal variants. Forms related to English “tea” are used throughout Western Europe (with the exception of Portuguese cha, which is probably based on a Cantonese original). The Inner Asian term spread far and wide—into Mongolian, Manchu, the Turkic languages, Persian, and the languages of the Indian subcontinent.

Thus, “tea” traveled by sea whereas “cha” traveled by land!

Along with the Idea of Teapots if Not the Teapots Themselves

Some believe that by the time the Europeans began to import tea, teapots were being used in China and so that practice was emulated in Europe. However, there is some disagreement on this point. According to the Hampshire Cultural Trust, at this time period tea was still being brewed in open pans or in cups in China—but since Chinese wine ewers were exported with the tea, the ewers may have been understood as being meant for tea brewing.

Regardless, in 1694, “the British East India Company directed that teapots made for them in China must have ‘a grate . . . before the spout'” (Hampshire Cultural Trust) to catch the tea leaves.

And, Happily, Oolong Arrives on the Scene

Early in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Fujian tea producers in Wuyi began a new tea process, resulting in wulong—or oolong—teas. Rather than heating the tea leaves immediately after they were plucked, they were instead allowed to wilt, were partially oxidized, and then were heated. By the mid-1800s, the Anxi area of Fujian was devoted predominately to the oolongs.

And Stays!

milky jade leavesToday, Fujian produces green tea, including exquisite jasmine tea (jasmine blossoms are layered with tea so that the tea leaves pick up the jasmine aroma and flavor); black tea, including the smoky and pungent lapsang souchong; white tea; and of course oolongs.

My personal favorites of the Fujian offerings are the extraordinary China Milky Jade Oolong (pictured here after brewing) and China Royal Jasmine Curls, both available (along with other teas from Fujian Province) at TeaHaus.*

Whether cha or tea, it’s time to brew a cup!

*Because oolongs and the hand-rolled curls are handled so extensively during their labor-intensive production, it is crucial to screen them for purity. TeaHaus’ German suppliers test all the teas, both in the garden and after production, ensuring that they contain NO heavy metals or pesticide residue.

–Ceresa, M. “Tea: A very short history,” China Heritage Quarterly 29. March 2012.
–Hampshire Cultural Trust. “A brief history of the teapot.” https://hampshireculturaltrust.org.uk/content/brief-history-teapot.
–Norman, J. “Inner Asian words for paper and silk,”  Journal of the American Oriental Society 135(2):309. April–June 2015.
–Xinhua News Agency. “Ballad sheds light on historical tea trade,” China Economic Information Service. April 8, 2015.