Saturday, June 15, 2013

Hudson's Bay Tea Brick

The traveling teapot is an ambassador of tea. But, I like to think of it as an ambassador of beautiful places across America as well. Exploring an interesting place in Washington state seems like an appropriate post for today. This traveling teapot post will give you an armchair tour of a historical site that is miles down the river from Sacajawea State Park (which we explored earlier this week). Fort Vancouver is on the north side of the Columbia River not far from Portland, Oregon.
Fort Vancouver was a 19th-century outpost for fur trading. It served as the headquarters for the Hudson's Bay Company and its territory covered the entire region of what was known as Oregon Country. This region encompassed the current states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho as well as parts of Wyoming and Montana. Originally it included a part of British Columbia as well. The for was named for Captain George Vancouver. He was an English officer of the British Royal Navy and is best known for an expedition which explored and charted North America's northwestern Pacific coast regions, including the coasts of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. That expedition took place between 1791 and 1795.

Established by the British Hudson's Bay Company in 1825, Fort Vancouver operated farms to supply food to its men. Flowers, vegetables, fruits, and herbs all had their purpose and were planted on a seven-acre "herb garden" plot. Today, gardener's dressed in period attire tend to the garden that has been re-created with care and authenticity. All the vegetables in this garden are heirlooms, including the soldier beans, citron, yellow pear tomatoes, and dozens more. Fortunate visitors to the fort are given free seed packets of heirloom plants for their gardens at home. This herb garden is absolutely delightful and a pleasure to visit. The garden is plotted or divided into sections. Each section contains two or three varieties of plants, carefully planned and planted in groupings of like-kind. A mixture of herb, flower, fruit, or vegetable is scattered throughout the garden, creating beauty and interest. There is nothing boring about this garden! Pathways lead the visitor from plot to plot, allowing for ease in walking and viewing. It is fun to identify the plants and try to imagine how they were used. I am sure many of the herbs were used to make tisanes for pleasure or medicine and were used as well for flavoring foods.
The fort was (and is) substantial. At one time the palisades protected forty buildings which included homes, warehouses, a school, a library, a pharmacy, a chapel, a blacksmith shop, and a manufacturing facility. Outside the walls, additional housing, gardens and orchard, a shipyard, a distillery, a tannery, a sawmill, and a dairy were established. Fort Vancouver was the largest settlement of non-natives west of the Great Plains.

The officers homes inside the palisades give one an idea of the level of comfort that was afforded those in residence at the fort. A lovely porch is graced with comfortable chairs painted a shiny barn red. A roof keeps away the common rains and vines climb up the railing to add shade. It is a perfect place to drink a spot of tea with a friend (although in all truthfulness, this spot was more likely the meeting place for military men and fur traders to share conversation together).

Inside an officers house, a tea table is set with precious antique Spode china. Perfection is achieved by the careful placement of each item as it sits, awaiting after-dinner tea service. The teapot, set upon a metal base, is large and stately.
In the 1830's the Hudson Bay Company commissioned the Spode and Copeland company of Staffordshire, England to be their official supplier of china. At many outlets throughout North America, a variety of their transfer-print designs are offered for sale to shoe who helped to develop the frontier. Fort Vancouver and other sites in the Pacific Northwest show samples of some of the china pieces that have been excavated at their sites. The Fort Vancouver National Historic Site curates the world's largest archeological collection of Spode ceramics.
Shall we peek into the kitchen? It is simple, yet serviceable. It is where the tea kettle was heated for a strong tea in the grand dining room of the fort headquarters. The herb garden is right outside the kitchen door, giving the cooks and hosts ample access to peppermint, chamomile, sage, thyme, and more. Each would make a comforting pot of herbal tisane. Large blocks of red tea from China are also visible and available for those who desire a more stimulating cup.
Tea at the fort was made from large bricks or blocks of red tea. They are most interesting! Their compact nature makes them a sensible approach as a tea resource. 
One block of tea nearly fills my tea tray. And it makes a substantial platform for the little plum teapot.
Because I want to preserve my large block of tea, I made sure to purchase some small pieces as well. That way I could make some of the tea! The little plum teapot seemed eager to steep a pot of this historic Chinese tea.
If only you could smell this brick of tea! It is so fragrant and lovely! It is also very heavy, and when I lift it, my fingers get black, as though they are touching charcoal. The back side is scored, so that it can be broken into blocks and used as a tea beverage. This type of "tea" was popular and common not only in China, but with the explorers, pioneers, and military men who first came west.

This brick of tea was purchased at the Fort Vancouver Historical Reserve Visitor's Center. Along with the brick came a type-written copy of information telling about "brick tea". It reads as below:
This brick tea is made by the same Chinese company that produced and shipped it to the Hudson Bay Company of London in 1845. It is still popular in China today.

It was popular with the fur trappers because it was so concentrated that only a small amount scraped into a cup of boiling water would make a warming drink. If kept wrapped (in animal hides, brown paper or zip-lock bags), it keeps very well. Use a vegetable scraper or knife to scrape the desired amount of tea into your cup.

The tea is processed into a 6" x 10" brick that has scoring on the back side so it can easily be divided into smaller sections. The front side has an Oriental scene and the following inscription in Old Chinese:

China Tea Company Manufactured by Zhao Li Bridge Brick Tea Factory.

Brick tea is not green tea or black tea (called red tea in China). It is a specific combination of several teas that is recognized as "brick" tea. "Brick" refers to the way of processing tea into the distinctive compressed rectangle.

This information came from a young Chinese woman and her parents who were excited to find the tea at the Visitor's Center at Fort Vancouver Historical Reserve. Old Chinese is no longer commonly used in China but everyone is required to take classes so they can read and translate Old Chinese. It is read from right to left; and one, two or even three characters often form ideas rather than a specific word. Zhao and Li are very common surnames in China, similar to Smith and Jones in the United States.
I hope you've enjoyed your armchair tour of a beautiful part of Washington state. I'm sitting in my armchair too, sipping on the first cup of tea that I've made from the Fort Vancouver brick. It is very good!

Comment from blog reader: I wonder about the documentation that brick tea was imported to Fort Vancouver. From my research, this type of tea was invented specifically for the (camel caravan) trade between China and Tibet, Mongolia and Siberia, and wasn't known outside those areas until well into the 20th century ... I'd be interested to see a period source that proves differently!


Marilyn said...

This is one of my favorite places to visit and I love the tea connection. Thanks for sharing this special story here. I may just have to run over there and get some small pieces to try. I have a tea brick, but use it as a trivet and haven't wanted to cut into it. I love the herb gardens at the fort too. It is so beautiful at this time of year.

Dianne said...

Thank you for this fascinating glimpse of Fort Vancouver - I'd never read much about it before. The combination of herbs, tea and history is stellar :)

Time Traveling in Costume said...

I think this would be a very interesting tea to taste. I hope to try some myself sometime.

South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild said...

I wonder about the documentation that brick tea was imported to Fort Vancouver. From my research, this type of tea was invented specifically for the (camel caravan) trade between China and Tibet, Mongolia and Siberia, and wasn't known outside those areas until well into the 20th century ... I'd be interested to see a period source that proves differently!

La Tea Dah said...

Thoughtful comment, South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild. I don't have in-depth information, but am sharing the information as given by the the National Park Service. Their website refers questions about research and archives to Hudson's Bay Company Archives in Manitoba, Canada. Here is a link to the site. It would be interesting to see if further information can be gained by researching there.

Sparkly Engineer said...

I find the brick tea fascinating and long to try some