Thursday, October 18, 2018

Tea History: East Frisian Tea

Every tea tells a story. Today's post is about a cup of tea that feels like a novella: complete with a beginning, middle, and a sweet ending. The characters are all strong on their own but they share a common thread. At first the story is a bit disconcerting, as the flavor is so rich. But then as it lingers, it’s pure comfort. You can’t put this story down. You want to keep going, to see how it progresses. The next few sips balance out the narrative. The tea is super strong, independent enough to stand up to the cream. You're rooting for the main character. The last few sips reveal a surprising sweet finish, and you wish the adventure didn't have to end. This is the story told in a cup of East Frisian tea.

Let's uncover the authors of this story. One of most surprising tea drinking areas in the world is East Frisia. Have you heard about this small pocket of passionate tea drinkers? East Frisia is in the North West corner of Germany, right on the coast. It is right next to the Netherlands, and its location is one of the reasons why they drink tea. I recently had the opportunity to try an East Frisian blend of tea and starting reading about the full ritual behind it. Of course I ended up doing a bit more research. Turns out East Frisia has a very interesting tea history woven into one complex cup of tea.

The History
In the 17th century, tea came to East Frisia by their neighbors in the Netherlands. Given its location on the coast, many East Frisians were sailors, and some ended up employed by the Dutch East India company, sailing back from the East with crates of tea. Take the availability of tea and add in the chilly climate, and you have the perfect equation for tea drinking. From The True History Of Tea:
Situated on the North Sea coast between Denmark and the Netherlands, East Frisia with its bleak landscape of sand dunes, marshlands, and peat bogs, has traditionally been one of German's less prosperous regions. Poor drinking water is a perennial problem, so when tea started to become available in the 17th century, it was readily adopted by the East Frisians as a hot and flavored substitute for plain water.
East Frisians drank so much tea that the beverage became more popular than beer, which was made locally in the area. This ended up causing quite a bit of drama at the time. I found this tidbit from an interesting travel blog:
Beer export brought money into the region. Tea had to be imported, thus sucked money out of the region straight into the bottomless coffers of the mighty Dutch East India Company. Tea drinkers were accused of harming their homeland’s welfare. There was a concerted effort to denigrate tea and to promote tisanes made from lemon verbena, parsley and other locally grown herbs … to no avail. East Frisians were hooked on tea. They would remain so while beginning with the late 18th century Germans and the tea-trading Dutch themselves almost entirely succumbed to the allure of coffee.
East Frisians drink so much tea that according to this article (from a few years back), if East Frisia were a country its annual per capita consumption of 300 liters would be the highest in the world! The East Frisians have a very specific way of drinking their tea, which became a daily ritual. No one else in the world does it quite like they do. From the same article:
The small cups, the rock sugar, the cream that is never stirred - all took shape in the 19th century, when Germany was industrializing and urbanizing. In response to the economic upheaval, local histories were written and traditions set down in an effort to keep them from disappearing. East Frisian tea became the key to locals’ sense of identity. Even the porcelain used in the area had distinct rose patterns; the museum has display cases filled with teapots, cups and saucers.

The Tea Ritual-The Characters
If you are ever in East Frisia and invited to tea, it is important to know that it's polite to drink no less than three cups! I discovered this tea is extremely potent, so be ready for the caffeine kick.
Another important tip is that this tea is never, ever stirred. The ritual is all about layers of flavor, creating an interactive experience. The detailed way of preparing the tea will create flavors that vary from sip to sip- first, the comforting cream, then the punchy strength of the tea, and towards the end, the sweetness from the sugar. But this is no ordinary cup of milky tea.

The tea is traditionally a loose leaf mix of Assam and Ceylon. There are a few vendors that blend tea in East Frisia, and the exact ratios are a closely guarded secret. It's difficult to get the authentic East Frisian blends in the states, but a few companies do sell their own blends here, and I was able to get mine from Upton Tea Imports. To be honest, I ended up researching the East Frisian tea ritual because I was contacted by Upton Tea Imports to see if I wanted to review samples of their teas. They have an enormous catalogue and I ended up on a page for East Frisian tea. I've been curious to try the entire ritual, so I asked for some to try. I'll be doing a full review on the tea next week, so keep an eye out for that.

For the true East Frisia tea ceremony, you'll need a few pieces of teaware. I tried my best to recreate the ritual at home, but I had to make a few exceptions. You'll also need tea, cream, and rock sugar. Here's a list of everything needed:

-A rohmlepel (a creamer spoon). I tried to find a rohmlepel online and thought I found one, only to find it wasn't actually available after I ordered it. It's similar to a regular teaspoon but it's curved and looks like a tiny soup ladle. Since I was unable to find the real thing, I used a regular teaspoon. I noticed that a whole teaspoon produced too much cream for my liking, so I used closer to half a teaspoon to get a beautifully cloudy tea. For an image of the rohmlepel, visit this blog.

    -Kluntjes (rock sugar), traditionally made from beet sugar. The closest thing I was able to find here in the states is this Belgian rock sugar, also made from beet sugar, but I think the pieces are a bit smaller. Kluntjes should be fairly large, and when the hot tea is added to them, they make an audible cracking sound. I found the larger pieces I used did produce the satisfying sound.
    -A cream pitcher. I used my grandmother's old pitcher, which felt appropriate.

-A treckpott (teapot). I used one of my favorite teapots, one that I knew would keep the tea sufficiently warm.

-koppen (teacups). as I mentioned above, specific teaware is used in East Frisia, but I ended up using one of my favorite vintage cup and saucer sets. You can see a photo of a traditional tea set here.

-a Stövchen (a 'little stove', basically a tea warmer). I don't have a tea warmer, but they are available if you look around, usually used with a tealight candle.

The Tea ritual- Start The Adventure
So once you have your tea, ingredients, and teaware ready, it's time to get steeping! Here's what you need to do:

1. Steep the tea. You can steep right in the teapot and pour over a strainer, but I prefer to use a removable strainer inside the pot to prevent the tea from oversteeping. Pre-warm the pot then add your tea. Use 1 teaspoon per 6 ounces of water, and one extra teaspoon 'for the pot'. This makes a very dark brew. The water should be just off the boil and tea should steep for 3-4 minutes.

2. Put a Kluntje in each empty tea cup. Pour the tea into the cup and listen for the crackle!

3. Pour cream into a rohmlepel (or a regular teaspoon),  then gently tip the cream down an inner side of the cup, into the tea. This is supposed to produce 'clouds' of cream. I needed a few practice runs to get this right, as my cup originally looked like a blizzard instead of a cloud. As I mentioned before, do not stir your tea!

4. Again, do not stir your tea!! Now it's time to sip, and savor. Each sip will be different, and that's part of the whole experience. Enjoy the story that each layer of flavor reveals.

The Epilogue
I love how the East Frisian tea ritual unfolds itself in layers, just like a book. The introduction is mostly cream, then you get to know the main character of the tea, and then you have the surprisingly sweet finish. The happy ending leaves you smiling, and wishing it wasn’t over. Thankfully you have two more cups to go! Like other tea rituals around the world this one gets you to slow down, be mindful, and enjoy the story.

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