Last time we traveled to the cradles of tea culture – China and Japan. We learned about the local tea experience and how it changed with time. Today, our path takes us to more near and distant places to explore their relationship with tea. We’ll also witness the vital role tea plays in the social culture and customs of the local people.
The pioneers of Portugal and the early adopters of England
For the world, the story of tea started in China. For Europe, though, it all started in – no, not the U.K., but Portugal. The country established a colony in today’s Macao around 1550 AD and started trading. However, not in tea. The first information on tea in Europe supposedly comes from the letters of a missionary living in Macao. In 1569 he wrote about a red-colored medicinal drink called “cha”, served to the guests of wealthier families. One of the most ardent tea fans in Portugal became no other than Catherine de Braganza (or Bragança), the Infanta of Portugal. Later, she married Charles II and became the Queen of England. Legend has it that on her way to England, she packed tea in her personal belongings (and probably also a part of her dowry). The crates with the precious load were marked as “Transporte de Ervas Aromaticas” – “Transport of Aromatic Herbs” abbreviated to T.E.A.
By the time Catherine de Braganza arrived in England, tea was already a popular drink among the Portuguese aristocracy. However, due to its high price, it remained a drink for the elite for quite some time. That only changed much later when the Dutch started to import it on a larger scale.
The story repeated in England, where Catherine de Braganza quickly popularized tea in the royal circles. By then, tea was mostly seen as an exotic medicinal drink – and quite pricey (as England didn’t have a direct trading channel with China yet). The small amounts of tea that entered the country were heavily taxed. That turned tea into an expensive medicinal rarity, only accessible to the rich.
Catherine was the first to give tea its social status. While in England, she incorporated tea into her daily routine. Naturally, the court was very conscious of everything she did. By seeing her sip tea every day, the court members were encouraged to follow. That quickly turned tea into a social drink rather than just a healthy and exotic one.
The teaware, especially the porcelain one, was also a part of the tea ritual that Europe imported from China. Portugal was among the first to trade with porcelain through its colony in Macao. Again, Catherine took Chinese porcelain to sustain her tea-drinking habit. At that time, it was fairly expensive too. So, the whole tea experience was associated with wealth, upper-class status, and the good life. Time and the rising income of the working class turned it into a tea experience from daily life. However, one can still witness its original shine and glory in some of the upscale hotel chains’ “afternoon tea” offers around the world.
In the upcoming decades, the Netherlands and England established their direct trading lines with China and became the dominating importers of tea for Europe. It was only at the beginning of the 1880s that the Portuguese established a tea company on San Miguel - one of the islands in the Azores. Today, it is the only existing tea plantation in Europe.
Tea on a bigger scale: The Netherlands
Around the 17th century, Portugal gradually started to lose its trading power in the Chinese region. The Netherlands (then Holland) established itself as a leading trading country instead. The Dutch established their “East India Company,” which started importing tea in Europe through the Amsterdam port. Thus, tea entered France, Germany, and finally, England as a trading commodity. While it became popular in all those places, it was in England that the tea experience really took root. Although it was still a pricey habit, time, wholesale trade, and the increasingly falling prices eventually made it accessible to a larger audience. Adding milk and sugar to suit the European palate turned it entirely into a local habit, shaping it into its current state.
Although probably less known than England, the Netherlands also established a strong tea culture. Today, around 90% of the population in the Netherlands is estimated to be tea drinkers.
Like most nations that got their tea through the maritime road, the word for “tea” in Dutch is “thee”. The phrase “kopje thee?” translates as “a cup of tea?” and is a way to invite someone over.
Tea experience in the Netherlands: black tea with spices, please
To this day, tea remains a ubiquitous drink in the country. It can be found literally everywhere, from offices to train stations and cafes. Offices have incorporated “tea breaks” as a way for colleagues to get together for a few minutes, chat and release the pressure of the workday. Families also have a shared tea experience in the evening. They would gather at around 8 PM to watch and discuss the news over a cup of tea.
Black tea remains a favorite, although green and white tea drinking has been on the rise in recent years. A local peculiarity is that the Dutch love to spice up their tea. They gladly add cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, licorice root, and star anise, especially during the winter. This way, they create a variety of “winter tea mixes” bursting with flavor.
The Dutch tea containers – a precious collectible
The first time Dutch started to trade with tea was long before the invention of plastic. So they used tin boxes or inlaid wooden caddies to store their tea. It was probably a practice they borrowed from China, where tea tins were a popular tea-storing vessel, especially in the Southern parts. Today, these items are collectibles with high value and a beautiful aesthetic.
* Gorreana on San Miguel island in the Azores is currently the only tea plantation in Europe
The Moroccan tea experience
As with most Eastern societies, tea is a defining element in the local customs and culture. Local legends tell a story about a Moroccan traveler that introduced tea to Morocco as early as the 14th century (long before Europe set an eye on it). Historically though, sources point to England as the first country to introduce tea to the local market around the 18th century. It quickly took off, leading to the formation of one of the most vibrant tea cultures worldwide. Today, the Moroccan tea experience is a vital part of the local customs and a symbol of the country’s traditional hospitality.
In Morocco, every guest is treated to freshly brewed tea with an unmistakable mint flavor as a welcome greeting. Hosts put tea on the table along with meals, after them or in between. It accompanies people at all times in their daily life, in social interactions, and on happy occasions – or just about any occasion at all.
The mint tea has a very distinct character. People in Morocco prepare it by using Chinese green (usually gunpowder) tea. They then mix in some mint leaves and add sugar for its signature refreshing sweetness.
The whole tea experience of preparing, serving, and tasting Moroccan tea is referred to as Atai. Similarly to Gong Fu Cha, it implies a social and cultural meaning. Refusing Atai is considered impolite to the point of being offensive.
A step-by-step guide for preparing Atai
- Put about 6 grams of Chinese gunpowder green tea in a pot.
- Add about ½ liter of boiling water and steep for 15 min.
- Strain the brew into a separate container and set aside. Try not to steer or agitate it in any way.
- Rinse the tea in the pot with hot water and discard it to remove bitterness
- Pour back the first brew into the pot.
- Add fresh mint leaves (you can crush them beforehand for added extraction) and sugar.
- Boil for 5-7 more min
- Pour the freshly brewed tea into the glasses, then return it to the pot. Repeat 3 times. Similarly to the Gong Dao Bei function in Gong Fu Cha, this step ensures everyone gets brew of equal quality in their cup.
- Pour one last time from a height of about ½ meter. Make sure there is foam forming on top of each cup.
10. Optional: add more mint leaves to the brew
People in some areas of Morocco add pine nuts to the tea, along with the mint leaves. Others might substitute mint for wormwood leaves or verbena leaves. The tea will then get a unique lemon flavor.
The traditional Moroccan tea experience may last from 30 min to an hour. Interestingly, there is a widespread belief that men should perform it. However, there is one case where women get the final say in performing the tea ceremony. It’s an old tradition where women use tea preparation to communicate their consent or disapproval during matchmaking. Morocco has a long history of arranged marriages. When discussing marriage, the two families get together, prepare tea, and talk. The crucial moment is when the young bride-to-be serves the tea. If she makes a low pour, that means she rejects the man. A high pour means she gives her consent for further talks.
Today women are equally engaged in the performance of Moroccan tea art.
The modern meaning of tеа experience – a meditation or an invitation for connection
You can transform your tea hour with a friend into a ceremony simply by clearing your mind and instilling an intention to provide nurturing and good wishes to the other person. Instead of sipping your tea immediately after you sit next to one another, glance at one another and convey your thankfulness and appreciation for your friendship. Think of the tea as an offering as you pour it. Enjoy your tea leisurely, taking in the scent and flavor. Allow the warmth or coolness to calm your body. When you have completed your tea, express gratitude to your companion for joining you in this healthy tradition. Whether enjoyed with someone else or by oneself, the ritual of sipping tea offers a calming break in our day.