Europe’s tea sommeliers, from Chinese Emperors to Russian podstakanniki

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The story of tea in Europe begins in East Asia, mostly China and Japan, as early as the 2nd century BC. The leaves of Camelia sinensis, the name botanists give to the evergreen tea bush, were first infused 5,000 years ago, according to the legend, when a leaf accidentally fell in Chinese Emperor Shennong’s usual cup of hot water .

Tea leaves only appeared in the Old Continent in the last handful of centuries, with the opening of new maritime routes between Asia and Europe. Along with spices, tea became a major import for the powerful trading corporations, and although many believe British merchants were the first, it was actually the Portuguese and the Dutch who first sipped it on European shores.

From Dutch merchants to French Royals

“Our tea history goes way back to the 17th century, after trading with the Far East. This was one of the products which started the Dutch East India Company,” says Dutch tea sommelier Charlotte van de Ven, owner of the high tea company Zoet!! With Love.

After importing the coveted leaves from China, the Dutch set out to match the growing demand in Europe by setting up their own tea plantations in Java, Indonesia, allowing the nobility and growing bourgeoisie at home to enjoy simple, inexpensive black tea.

This preference for black tea is rooted in history. In China, tea was traditionally transported in the shape of compressed bricks or rolled leaves, to facilitate its preservation. Black tea was the usual choice, as the leaves are oxidised prior to being dried, making them more likely to resist the journey. Logically, this is the tea which the first European merchants brought back with them.

France’s Queen Marie-Antoinette was known for favouring green tea leaves mixed with fresh apples and roses from the gardens of Versailles, hot or cold – Photo: InterContinental Paris – Le Grand’s iced tea

“Drinking inexpensive black tea has been the standard way of drinking tea in the Netherlands,” says van de Ven. “A typical Dutch tradition that still lives on today is a family moment, with kids arriving home from school drinking tea and eating a biscuit before anything else.” Only recently have the Dutch begun to appreciate different, higher quality varieties.

It was via the Dutch that tea made its way to Parisian high society and the first coffee houses in London, where it was quickly adopted in spite of early reservations. The first mention of tea being mixed with milk appears in a letter from Madame de Sévigné, a well-known French author and noblewoman, highlighting the drink’s popularity in high society circles at the time.
“The French then and now are used to drinking coffee,” says Francois-Xavier Delmas, founder of Palais des Thés, a network of tea shops and a Tea School which offers a Tea Sommelier diploma course. “But there is now an incredible interest in tea. The French love gastronomy and they are discovering that tea is part of that.”

Today, the preferred style reflects the French love for culinary marriage, the perfect pairing between a dish and a wine. The same way the chalky soil of Chablis makes wines from this region exceptionally suited to enhance the taste of oysters, for instance, black teas pair well with roasted meats, such as lamb and venison.

Day-to-day, however, the habits can be different. “The French drink their tea straight—without milk or sugar, “ says Delmas. “Mostly they don’t like blends. They discover tea as they enjoy wine, through single estates, with some of their favourites including Darjeeling Singbulli from India, Guranse black tea from Nepal and a black tea from Japan: Benifuki from Mister Yumada.”

A Portuguese Princess popularises tea in England

The tea shop of Companhia Portugueza do Cha, in Lisbon – Photo: Oapartament

While often unsung, Portugal played an integral role in Europe’s tea history. The Portuguese can claim to be among the first to have tasted Chinese teas after establishing a trading port in Macau in the 16th century. Princess Catharine of Braganza married England’s Charles II in 1662 and helped popularise tea with the English court.”

“Tea in Portugal is a cultural and social tradition,” says the Lisbon-based tea sommelier Sebastian Filgueiros, owner of Companhia Portugueza do Cha. “[Mostly drunk at home], tea is also part of family and social gatherings and an inspiration for poets,” he says. Filgueiros points to The Cult of Tea (1905), a moving study of Japanese tea culture written by Wenceslau de Moraes, who served as Portugal’s consul in Kobe, and to Fernando Pessoa, one of the nation’s greatest 20th century poets, who wrote about drinking tea at his aunt’s house one afternoon and feeling “intact in the world”.

Today, black teas and oolongs from Portugal’s former colonies in the Far East and Africa and its own plantations in the Azores are prepared “in the British way”, says Filgueiros. But there are key differences: “it is usually black tea, [but] with sugar, and without milk.”

The rise of the 5 o’clock afternoon tea

Rarer types of tea, such as this jasmine infusion, are getting more popular in the UK – Photo: Camellia’s Tea House

The British drink 165 million cups of tea a day. “People in the UK generally have a real love affair with tea,” says Ajit Madan, an International Tea Education Institute’s Master Tea Sommelier and co-founder of the Camellia’s Tea House in London. “Most people I know drink a cup of tea as soon as they wake up.”

The rise of tea in Britain followed that of the British East India Company. Incorporated by a royal charter in 1600, the company evolved to become the agent of British imperialism in India until the mid 19th-century, introducing tea cultivation to the country after the discovery of the local Assam variety, which was seen as an opportunity to challenge China’s dominance . “They were pioneers of black tea as we know it today,” says Madan.

A major influence on British tea culture was Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford,who established the ritual of ‘afternoon tea’ in the 1840s, arguably emulating the French tradition of the afternoon “goûter”, then popular in literary salons. As well as quelling hunger (lunches were light in 19th century Britain), serving cakes and sandwiches with tea to gatherings at her home in Woburn Abbey also had a social purpose.

“A pound of tea was equivalent to the average worker’s yearly salary then,” says Madan. Luxurious bone china, ornate silver teapots, trays and cake stands were other effective ways to display one’s wealth and taste.

The traditional way of taking tea in the UK remains black tea with milk and, more rarely, sugar. However, habits are slowly changing. “Every year you see a bigger migration of people moving away from drinking the really inexpensive black tea,” says Madan, to flavoured and aromatised teas as well as green teas and Japanese Matcha, both rich in antioxidants.

Russia samovars and Turkish caydanlik

Welcome to Russia’s long tradition with black tea – Photo: InterContinental Moscow – Tverskaya

Russia’s tea culture was brewed in a blend of influences from both China, via the first imports of the Silk Road, through Mongolia and Siberia, and Western Europe. Today, it remains “the most popular beverage in the country,” says Denis Shumakov, a celebrated figure in the Russian tea industry and a former Head Judge of the Tea Masters Cup.

More than 70 per cent of Russians consume “pure black tea, without additives,” he says. “Some 20 years ago, perhaps, it was still possible to speak about a purely Russian way of brewing tea—very strong tea (zavarka) and its subsequent dilution with hot water right in a cup, just before drinking,” he says.

The habit of drinking tea from a saucer and diluting zavarka with water came from the use of samovars [large, metal urn-shaped kettles with a tap], explains Shumakov. “The saucer allowed the drink to cool down quicker, and preparation of very strong tea for further dilution allowed it to stay at the table longer without brewing a new tea.”

Today, it’s harder to pinpoint a definitive Russian tea culture. Using a samovar has become part of a “very stereotyped idea of Russian tea drinking,” says Shumakov; drinking tea from a saucer or a glass in a holder (podstakannik) is something for tourists. “But the habit of adding sugar and lemon has been preserved.”

On the other side of the Black Sea, Turkey is today the fifth biggest tea producing country in the world, and has the highest tea consumption per capita. Quite remarkable, given that it was only recently introduced, in the course of the 20th century. Tea cultivation began in the Black Sea region of Rize in the mid-1900s after making its way from Georgia.

Tea ceremony by Turkish tea sommelier Liliana L. Aslanoba’ s Melez Tea

“Tea in Turkey is straightforward, but at the same time unique and central to Turkish culture,” says tea sommelier Liliana L. Aslanoba, who established her tea company, Melez Tea, in Istanbul in 2015. “In most households in Turkey, tea is always brewing and wherever you go, regardless of the time of day, you will be offered Turkish tea as a sign of hospitality.”

Black tea is drunk at breakfast and throughout the day. It is prepared in the Turkish version of the samovar, the double kettle, caydanlik, which allows “a strong or light brew as is the case with its Russian counterpart,” explains Aslanoba. “It is typically drank straight or with one to two cubes of sugar in beautiful tulip shaped glasses”.

While old tea traditions in Europe remain, evolving tastes and growing interest in its health benefits are developing new ones. “People are beginning to regard tea as a superfood,” says Madan. Tea lovers are taking more time to appreciate new preparations, and are moving from tea bags to loose leaf, which extracts more of tea’s vitamins, minerals, flavours and aroma. They are combining the old with the new.

“People are more and more interested to know where their product is coming from, “ says van de Ven, “To find out the story behind the cup.”

Indulge in the discovery of new tea blends and other culinary delights with some of the hand-picked seasonal menus from InterContinental Hotels.

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