Sandy’s Garden ... Gunpowder Tea

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Remember, remember the fifth of November/Gunpowder treason and plot;/I see no reason why gunpowder treason/Should ever be forgot!

That quatrain, usually described as a ‘traditional’ children’s nursery rhyme, is, in fact, the opening four lines of a longer poem written as a piece of Protestant propaganda to help people recall the events of the fifth of November 1605, when a carefully-orchestrated search of the cellars of the Houses of Parliament on the eve of the state opening of Parliament found barrels of gunpowder and a certain Guido Fawkes, who was to have lit the fuses in a Roman Catholic-instigated bid to blow the king and his parliamentarians to kingdom come. The authorities almost certainly were aware that the supposed wine barrels contained gunpowder rather than finest French table wines: but the dramatic effect of ‘discovering’ the plot at the eleventh hour was seen as heightening the drama. And, of course, the success of the way in which the plot was exploited as a piece of propaganda is proved by our continuing burning of an effigy of Guido, or Guy, Fawkes to this very day, with fireworks representing the intended explosion.

Now, on what seems to be a wholly-unrelated topic, my wife spent several days at the end of August enjoying the sights and sounds of London, staying in a hotel which was next door to the internationally-known department store Fortnum and Mason’s: but here comes the link, for Fortnum’s has stocked a particular type of green tea continuously since the 18th century, which says a great deal about its likeability. The company states that, “The tightly rolled leaves first resemble gunpowder pellets, which uncurl when brewed to give an unexpectedly peaceful and delicate tea. Excellent served without milk after dinner, either hot or iced.” And what is the name of this delicacy? Why, what else but gunpowder tea!

Gunpowder tea, like most green teas, comes from the Camellia Sinensis plant, which is a small leaved bush with many stems that can reach almost 3 metres in height. These bushes are grown in Zhejiang province in China, in Taiwan, and in Sri Lanka. There is no universal agreement about the origin of the name ‘gunpowder tea’ for, while Fortnum’s explanation is the most widely accepted, some authorities claim that the name comes from its taste, which is best described as ‘smoky’, although ‘coppery’, ‘grassy’, and ‘minty’ have also been used. This tea is also sometimes sold under the names ‘pearl tea’ or ‘bread tea’: but if any readers are tempted to buy some, the most common appellation is ‘gunpowder tea’.

It is thought that the cultivation of gunpowder tea in China’s Zhejiang province dates back some 1500 years, although it remained virtually unknown in Europe before its cultivation was introduced into Taiwan in the early 1800s. The rolling of the leaves … for they do not grow ready-rolled on the bushes … prevents the leaves from breaking in storage and allows them to be kept in suitable, air-tight containers for many years without losing their flavour. Despite this, buyers are recommended to look for small, shiny pellets; the gloss is a sign of freshness and the finest gunpowder tea comes from the smallest leaves.

Specialist tea merchants will offer different varieties of gunpowder tea, each with a different, dominant taste. It is popular with coffee drinkers and, if drunk with food as an alternative to wine, goes well as an accompaniment to pork, seafood and vegetables. And do follow the brewing instructions on the pack … they are not the same as for ‘black’ tea. It might be fun to try gunpowder tea on Guy Fawkes Day and to amend the first two lines of the poem to read: Remember, remember the fifth of November, / Put gunpowder tea in the pot!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society