When it’s tea time, turn to a Twining

By  Pamela  H.  Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2002

Samuel H. G. Twining downs nine to 15 cups of tea a day.

This may seem a bit excessive — but if Mr. Twining were not a devotee of tea, who would be?

He is a ninth-generation member of the British family whose business, R. Twining and Co., has been synonymous with that particular beverage for nearly 300 years.

The other day, over a cup of Darjeeling, Mr. Twining gestured to himself and remarked with a chuckle, “There’s no blood in here. It’s probably all tea.”

Mr. Twining was at the Concord Museum for a series of events to celebrate the opening of an exhibition of 100 18th- and 19th-century teapots from the Twining Teapot Gallery at the Norwich Castle Museum in Great Britain.

The exhibition, which will run until the end of May, includes teapots of every size and shape, many of them exquisitely decorated. They range from tiny ones that were used in the early 17th century, when tea was exorbitantly expensive, to “the world’s largest,” a stunning porcelain specimen made around 1851 for the Crystal Palace Exposition in London. It is decorated with scenes, executed in enamel colors, depicting the production of tea.

Mr. Twining, a trim gentleman in his mid 60s with a thick shock of gray hair and, naturally, a charming British accent, likens tea to wine: green is equivalent to white wine, red to rose and black to a fine merlot, cabernet or burgundy.

“You ought to drink tea according to the mood you’re in,” he advised.

On the other hand, Mr. Twining does have some general guidelines for the serious tea drinker.

English breakfast tea is “brisk and bright and wakes you up,” he said, adding that he has three or four cups first thing in the morning.

At work, he switches to the mild and mellow Darjeeling. As the day wears on, he quaffs Earl Grey when the weather is warm and Prince of Wales, the personal blend of King Edward VIII, when it is cold.

After a big meal, his tea of choice is Jasmine, a green variety flavored with flowers and low in caffeine — a digestive tea. “You sleep like a baby after a cup of Jasmine,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Twining has encyclopedic knowledge of the history of tea and teapots, which he is happy to share.

British ships began regular sailings to China in the 17th century. They brought home an exotic drink called tea, which went on sale in London in 1658. The Chinese sent along white porcelain teapots and cups, but jealously guarded the process by which they were made.

“Rich ladies fell in love with the porcelain,” Mr. Twining said. “It was very fine and you could see your hand through it.”

HEAVILY TAXED

At the behest of the ale brewers, who felt threatened, tea was heavily taxed and few could afford it. Serving tea in the coveted porcelain soon became a status symbol, and a tea service was taken out only for visitors worth impressing.

“It was very much keeping up with the Joneses,” Mr. Twining said.

British potters experimented for more than 70 years in their attempts to re-create Chinese porcelain, producing an amazing variety of teapots along the way, as the museum’s exhibition makes clear. They gradually developed a fine porcelain of their own, which came to be known as bone china.

Tea, meanwhile, remained solely within the reach of the well-to-do. Mr. Twining remarked that the patriots who dumped tea into Boston Harbor in 1773 were not the only ones who objected to the high tax.

TWINING TO THE RESCUE

It was a Twining who came to the rescue and changed the role of tea in England forever.

In 1784, Richard Twining, grandson of the company’s founder, Thomas, persuaded then prime minister William Pitt to lower the tax by arguing that the resulting higher volume of sales would increase tax revenues. Pitt agreed, and tea prices plunged.

The seventh Duchess of Bedford, a Lady of the Bedchamber to the young Queen Victoria, invented the renowned British tradition, the afternoon tea. It was during the early decades of the 19th century, when lunch was earlier and dinner later than modern times. Seeking a way to quell her hunger pangs, the duchess decided to have little sandwiches, biscuits (cookies to us) and crumpets served with tea between 4 and 5 p.m.

Queen Victoria liked the idea, too, and when word got out, afternoon tea became all the rage.

Mr. Twining was quick to add that “high tea,” which is how Americans typically refer to the 4 p.m. tradition, is actually the practice of sitting at a high table to have a big meal.

“Afternoon tea is the grand affair,” he said.

The teapot collaboration with the Norwich Castle Museum came after a woman approached Mr. Twining in 1987 about selling her husband’s massive collection. The couple had fallen on hard times.

“I visited her home and every level of the house was covered in teapots,” he said. “It was a fantastic collection.”

Twining’s raised the money to purchase the collection; Norwich already had 600 teapots. The combined cache numbers 3,000 teapots dating from the 1700s to present day.

The exhibition travels the world, each teapot in its own specially constructed case. They will go to New Orleans for the summer and to Cape May, N.J., in the fall and then back to Great Britain.

As for Mr. Twining, he and his wife live on the Isle of Wight in an estate that has been in the Twining family for four generations.

Although part of a large British food conglomerate, the company is operated independently. The Twinings have a son, Stephen, who is about to take over for his father, who is a company director. Mr. Twining also has two grandsons and a granddaughter, so the legendary Twining’s is likely to remain a family affair for some time to come.

“Thank goodness,” Mr. Twining said with a broad smile.