While I am sitting here enjoying my evening cuppa, I’m looking at my floor-to-ceiling shelving unit that is loaded and overflowing with all things tea. As anyone who knows me can attest, I have a rather large collection of teapots (and teacups for that matter, but that’s a subject for another day) of all types, shapes, and sizes. I know, I know, it’s an addiction, but I can’t seem to help myself. Each one is so unique, and no matter the style, I have found that the teapot adds such a wonderful element to teatime. My choice of vessel for each occasion depends on the mood I find myself in, and the type of tea I wish to drink. But it is interesting to note that while today the teapot itself is a fixture at teatime, this vessel is actually a relatively recent addition to the art of tea making.
While nobody actually knows when tea was first discovered in China, the earliest records of tea harvesting date to around 2000 BC. Over the next several millennia, the tradition of tea-drinking would slowly become an integral part of Chinese culture. But it wasn’t made in teapots but tea bowls. At first, the leaves were harvested and formed into tea cakes or bricks, but rarely left as loose leaves. To make tea, a person would break off a piece from the tightly compressed tea cakes, grind it into a powder, mix with hot water, then stir or eventually whip the mixture into a frothy drink.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that whole leaf infusion, as we know it now, became popular. With the advent of this new method of tea making, the idea for the teapot was born. Those first teapots were created from purple sand clay or zisha found in the area of Yixing, China. Though somewhat crude at first, it was discovered that the quality of the pottery greatly influenced the taste of the tea, and the creation of teapots became an art form unto itself. Still manufactured today, these Yixing teapots are known for their quality, and the artisans that create them are heralded for their ability to combine art with practicality.
As the tradition of tea-drinking spread the world over, so has the teapot. It has taken on many forms and been made from a variety of materials in different cultures; some teapots favor form over function, others are simple and practical in appearance. Still others capture that illusive combination of both. And about a third of all of those teapots have made their way to my dining room shelves. (Perhaps I need an intervention…and, for that matter, a better way to dust). But regardless of style or its relative youth, the teapot has become a ubiquitous and essential accessory at teatime.