Was it something I said?
When a friend received a tea-tasting invitation from the East India Company, based in one of the swankier streets of London's West End, we did indeed do a double-take. But, hey, a tea tasting? I've never been to one of those, so last night off we trundled in the spirit of "once a philosopher, twice a pervert".
Entering the ornate orientalised doors under a sign that I never thought I'd see in my lifetime certainly sent a frisson of dread running though me. Why on earth would anyone wish to revive the name of a company reviled for its role in some of the most vicious imperialism ever seen on the planet? China and India occupied, exploited, oppressed — only recently emerging from centuries of ravishment by foreign powers and now no longer lying back and thinking of England.
Oh well, perhaps enough historical time had elapsed to allow an innocent Disneyfication of one of the most (in)famous business enterprises ever. Who can begrudge a wily entrepreneur a short cut to branding their store?
Hi Ching, one of my trés elegant companions, who knows a thing or two about cha, thought the striking black and red lacquer to be an amusing pastiche, although "S", my friend with the invitation, suspected it was the real thing.
The event was laid on to promote the first flush crop of Darjeeling, on sale for £30 per packet. To get us into the mood, sweet young ladies served us tea-based cocktails flavoured with fruit cordials, while salesmen (all male but one) schmoozed the guests. The list included hibiscus and mimosa, but today we sampled poppy, ginger and orange blossom. I was sufficiently impressed with the orange blossom (a deliciously delicate taste, mixed over ice with white tea) to request that an assistant put aside a bottle and a packet of the same white tea for purchase once the tills were open.
Perhaps this is where communications were delivered a fatal salvo from a gunboat up their collective Yangtze. I had the temerity to ask the price. The cordial was marked at a reasonable £7.90, but I wanted to know how much the tea would be. It took four different assistants to let me know that it would be £15 for a tin. More than this Clipper tea-bag gal would normally shell out, but acceptable as a treat. Maybe their alarmed expressions when faced with this sort of enquiry should have alerted me. Were they aspiring to the exclusivity of Louis Vuitton just round the corner, whose shops forbid you to buy more than one of their £3,000 bags per blue moon? Did they really believe that if you have to ask, you can't afford it? In this age of the Big Society? Shouldn't their clients be charged more tax in order to disabuse them of this delusion? I mean, it's only a shop.
I'd imagined serving up orange blossom cocktails in the garden for mates whose tastebuds hadn't yet been wrecked by curry, fags and beer. But, sadly, it wasn't to be.
Following a minor glitch that seemed to frazzle our hosts' nerves beyond what was entirely necessary, the PowerPoint presentation commenced. The talk which followed gradually confirmed "S"'s hunch about this being the real deal rather than a pastiche. A history of the East India Company was littered with "we", as if this store was a continuation of the megacorporation which received its Royal Charter from Elizabeth I in 1600 but was dissolved in 1874. The company's role in the Opium Wars and the espionage involved in extracting the technology and Camellia Sinensis plants from China was glossed over while we were told about the red-headed Scots botanist who could "pass as a Chinaman". Well done. Three great clunking insults in one tiny sentence.
To say that the expert, when he took the mic, was tense would be an understatement. At the end of his contribution — not the most exciting or informative five minutes I've ever stood through — we were served the Darjeeling first flush tea and the floor was opened up for questions. An older manager in a light suit called, a tad desperately, for our participation in the Q&A. Having read several articles, including ones by George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens, on making the perfect cuppa, I asked one that has always seemed to stymie the experts: should you make tea with water at boiling point or below? "Either," came the rather unhelpful reply. Hi Ching then asked what material our expert recommended for the pot: glass, clay or china? "Either", we heard for a second time.
After a longeur, I continued Hi Ching's theme and asked if they thought clay or bone china cups were best, as if I actually gave a damn. "Depends on what you can afford," sneered the man in the light suit. Mustering maximum hauteur, I growled sweetly, "Assuming one can afford both, which is best: bone china or clay?" Apparently there is no difference, but presumably "either" is better than the tiny paper cups being used today.
Then my friend Tim asked the Milk Question: in the cup first or added after the tea? Tim is white with a posh accent. For some strange reason that escapes me, he received a more detailed and jovial response which could be summarised as, "Either", but at least they made the effort. Seems the idea of putting milk into the cup first arose only with the use of thin porcelain purely in order to prevent it cracking under the sudden temperature change.
Finally, the young ladies served up a fabulous array of chocolates but "S" and I decided to make our getaway while Hi Ching was questioned by a guest who evidently considered him better qualified to talk tea than the staff.
Oh, and that orange blossom and white tea order? Couldn't afford it, could I?
Anna Chen presents The Steampunk Opium Wars at the National Maritime Museum 16 February 2012.
Anna Chen will be hosting an evening at the National Maritime Museum on Thursday 9th February 2012 to mark the opening of the museum's Traders Gallery which will include a section on the Opium Wars. She has featured the subjects of tea, chinoiserie and the Opium Wars in her programmes for BBC Radio 4, Chinese In Britain, and Chopsticks At Dawn.