Tea had a landmark anniversary in January of this year: it was the beverage of choice on the expedition to the South Pole led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, which his team reached in January 1912. An unopened tin of this tea, retrieved from the expedition’s campsite years later by Ernest Shackleton and taken to New Zealand, is on display at the Powerhouse Museum. A label on one side of the tin says “TOWER TEA THE CHOICE BLEND FINE INDIAN & CEYLON TEA 11b Nett Weight.” It was produced sometime between 1895 and 1905, meaning that Sri Lanka (called “Ceylon” then) had been growing tea for only a few years, having switched from coffee growing due to a blight.
Jules Verne wrote about a fantastical journey to the center of the earth, a fictional account of exploring unknown reaches of our planet. But there are real explorers — people like Scott and his team who traveled to the far off place (at least from their part of the planet in the UK) of Antarctica (reaching the South Pole in January 1912 — 100 years ago) — and tea was part of the journey!
Okay, so the expedition wasn’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, a walk in the park, and Scott himself, once they reached Antarctica, was heard to proclaim “Great God! this is an awful place…” and they suffered frost bite, injury, malnutrition, and exhaustion, but they had tea with them! Sorry, was I being sarcastic there?
Actually, I admire people who can leave the comforts of hearth and home to pit themselves against this big ball we all live on, and to do so in an age where the technology (things like thermal underwear, for example) is not there to help out is even more admirable. Scott was seeking to lead a team of explorers to the South Pole and to carry out some scientific observations along the way. He arrived at the South Pole only to discover that Norwegian Roald Amundsen was already there. Sigh! So much for being first.
But wait, it was still quite an achievement and certainly makes many of our accomplishments seem humble in comparison. Some blame him for the deaths of his team on their return trip (an 800-mile trek on foot in temperatures that got up to -30° on a balmy day), but each one was there of his own accord, not through any coercion.
In June 2010, it was reported that Typhoo raised £20,000 to go toward preserving the 50’x20’ rough wooden hut built by Scott’s team on Ross Island in the Antarctic. They have also teamed up with Tesco, a British supermarket chain, to market a special blend (a replicate of the original blend that traveled with the Scott 1910-1913 expedition) they produced of strong tea, appropriately named “Captain Scott’s Strong Blend.” (The Typhoo company, originally called Ridgways, produced the tea that traveled with Scott 100 years ago.) A small amount of the purchase price of every box of this tea sold went to the preservation fund.
Among the things found in Scott’s hut when it was dug out from under ice and snow by an expedition in 1956 was a package of Huntley & Palmers Digestives, well preserved (that is, not moldy and fairly intact) although probably not as tasty as they were in 1910 when they were packed aboard the ship for the long voyage across oceans to the hut in McMurdo sound. I think I’d rather have some fresh McVitie’s Chocolate Digestives!
Next time you’re enjoying a good strong cuppa Typhoo tea, remember those intrepid, albeit ill-fated, explorers, traveling to the far reaches of our planet. Cheers!
My thanks to May King Tsang, another writer for this blog and a knowledgeable tea consultant, for passing along to me an item she saw in Twitter about tea being on Scott’s expedition to Antarctica.
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