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A Taste of the Lowlands


Tea Time with a Twist

By Reinhard F. Hahn, Seattle, USA, ©2007
This work is a feature article on Tea Culture.

Tea time where?!

Most people in the West associate “tea time” with Britain and some of its former colonies, and most people in North America Emden, crossroads of Frisian, Dutch and Saxon heritagethink of cows when they hear the name “Frisian.” Put “tea time” and “Frisian” together and you get an intriguing tradition, one with only the slightest hint of a cow connection. This tradition is fairly well known in coffee-drinking Germany where for many people “tea” is domestically synonymous with “Frisian.” Why is this tradition not better known in other countries? Internationally acknowledging and certainly publicizing internal ethnic diversity is a fairly novel thing in a Europe that is still largely haunted by the wishful notion of “one country = one ethnicity = one language.” As a result, information about European minority cultures has been difficult to come by and tends to require foreign language proficiency.

Frisians? Who are they?

Centuries ago, Frisians (pronounced “free-zhunz” or “free-zee-yunz”) dominated most of the continental North Sea coast and the neighboring island chains. Their domain then stretched from what is now Northern Belgium to what is now Southwestern Denmark.

Map of original and surviving Frisian areas

Many Frisians have been fishing for a living. Others have been raising sheep and cattle on the low-lying marshy soil. Their skills in reclaiming and maintaining flood-prone land has become legendary, as has their production of dairy products. Although they receive little mention in this context, Frisians (perhaps mostly Frisian women) participated in the Germanic-speaking colonization of Britain alongside Saxons, Angels and Jutes. In fact, the Frisian languages are considered the closest relatives of English and Scots. Although Frisians have proven themselves as survivors in the face of the North Sea’s relentless and merciless onslaughts and voracious appetite for land, only some of their communities have been able to stem the tides of their neighbors’ cultural and linguistic domination. In all of today’s Belgium and in most of today’s Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, former Frisian communities now speak their dominant neighbors’ languages, and little of their cultures remains. Only Frisian-rooted place names commemorate the former extent of yesteryear’s Greater Friesland.

Frisian survival

To this day, Frisian culture has survived to a considerable extent only in three fairly small areas: (1) the provinces of Western Friesland (now officially called Fryslân) and Groningen in the north of the Netherlands, A detail from the Carta Mrina by Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) showing Western Friesland and Eastern Friesland(2) Eastern Friesland near the Dutch border in Germany’s state of Lower Saxony, and (3) Northern Friesland along the northwestern part of Germany’s state of Schleswig-Holstein and the island of Heligoland (and perhaps in a few remaining households in neighboring Denmark). Frisian language varieties are still used in Western Friesland, Northern Friesland, and in Saterland. (Saterland is a small enclave just south of Eastern Friesland to which staunch Roman Catholics retreated in the wake of the Reformation, and in their isolation they preserved the last remnant of the East Frisian language.) It is fair to talk about at least four Frisian languages, each with a number of dialects: Western, Saterland (Eastern), Northern Insular, and Northern Mainland Frisian. All varieties used in Germany are now severely threatened with extinction. Mutual intelligibility between these is anywhere between fair and poor.

Homing in on Eastern Friesland

Eastern Friesland is known as Aast-Fräislound in Saterland’s East Frisian and as Oostfreesland in Low Saxon (“Low German”). It is often referred to by the German name Ostfriesland among English speakers that fancy themselves as “insiders.” Some other English-speaking circles have adopted the label “East Frisia” (apparently under the influence of German speakers participating in the writing of English articles for Wikipedia).

Eastern Friesland lost its Frisian language and came to adopt the Saxon language under the domination of Saxon overlords and Hanseatic merchants. (We are not talking about today’s Saxony, a German-speaking state that usurped the name some time ago.) Greetsiel, one of Eastern Friesland's picturesque townsWhen in the 16th and 17th centuries the power of the Saxon-speaking Hanseatic Trading League dwindled and German power encroached upon the north, East Frisians adopted the German language as well. Their own Frisian-colored dialects of Low Saxon came to serve as symbols of their Frisian identity. These dialects ended up resisting German pressure more successfully than did other dialects of Northern Germany’s original language (which is also used in the eastern parts of the Netherlands and recently was given official recognition in both countries within the framework of the European Languages Charter). East Frisian culture resisted even more successfully. It still serves as an expression of ethnic or regional identity. For a long time, things German were kept at arm’s length in Eastern Friesland, while things Dutch and most certainly things West Frisian seemed more familiar and were thus more readily adopted.

Tea’s triumph

Having begun as an anti-piracy alliance in the 13th century, the Saxon-speaking Hanseatic Trading League had dominated the Baltic Sea and had liaison offices in major port cities along the North Sea Coast, also in Britain. English borrowed a good number of words from that language, for instance “mate” and “trade.” When British and Dutch overseas trading and colonization took off in earnest, the less adventurous centuries-old Saxon-speaking merchant association failed to compete and crumbled in the 17th century. East Frisians looked westward to their fellow Frisians and to the Dutch that ruled these and greatly profited from their overseas exploits. “Holland” came to be synonymous with “riches.” Exotic spices began to arrive in the East Frisian port cities Emden and Leer—and, in the early 17th century … tea. With time, beer ceased to be the predominant local drink (though fine, clean-tasting lager beer is still being produced there).

Tea took over and became a staple by the 18th century. Many East Frisians were hired by the Dutch East India Company, most of them as sailors, some of them advancing to the rank of captain. (There was no communication issue, since the Low German, i.e. Low Franconian and Low Saxon, linguistic continuum from Northern France to Estonia was still pretty much intact then.) "Teeroos'" (German "Teerose"), one of the most popular traditional East Frisian china patterns of the rustic sortSome of these men would take drawings of their neighbors’ coats of arms with them to China for incorporation into the patterns of fine, family-specific sets of heirloom tea dishes. Tea was all the rage. It was exotic, non-intoxicating and invigorating, and it was cheaper than beer. It was just the type of warming drink you need on the almost constantly wind-pummeled North Sea coast. Furthermore, unlike beer consumption, tea consumption was considered fairly innocuous within puritanical Protestant circles. Nevertheless, local authorities tried to suppress tea consumption for a while. 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 are used to being the odd ones out, to be the butt of jokes, and they have found a way of wearing this as a badge of honor.

Tea time à la frisonne orientale

Opwachten un Tee drinken (“Wait and see and drink some tea”) goes one of Eastern Friesland’s sayings. It describes a way of life in which unhurriedness and coziness are highly valued, especially during inclement weather, which is the case more often than not.

The land around Greetsiel, Eastern Friesland--canals drain the low-lying fen beneath a heavy skyNow imagine yourself on a visit to Eastern Friesland. You took a bus to the nearest town center, looked around, had lunch at a restaurant offering seafood specials, then did some browsing and in among touristy trinkets found a few worthwhile souvenirs, perhaps some nice blue-and-white Frisian tiles and teacups. All right, and for Bob there’s that navy-blue sweatshirt emblazoned with “Moin,” the Low Saxon version of “Hi.” You decide to walk back because it stopped drizzling and the sun has taken a couple of peeks. You follow people’s advice by walking on top of the dike. This way you can’t get lost, and you get to see the North Sea on one side and on the other side neat, no-nonsense Frisian houses and black-and-white cows dotting the flat-as-a-pancake fenland with its ditch and canal patterns. Wind and rain kick up again. By the time you arrive at the six-room pension you are freezing, and your face feels as if on fire due to all those wet gusts of cold, salty air. A delightful aroma wafts your way as you enter the warm hall. You’re just in time for “Teetied,” East Frisian tea time.

East-Frisian-style rock candy (kluntje)People are gathering in the Fresenstuuv’ (pronounced like “fray-zn-stoov”), the Frisian-style dining-room (Friesenstube for German speakers) in which an antique tall, blue-and-white-tiled stove is the focal point. (In the past, there may have been a cast-iron stove or a peat fire hearth in less wealthy homes.) The table looks lovely with a crisp tablecloth, a bunch of lilac and a silver platter full of buttery and not terribly sweet cookies, some of them the spiced type and others varieties of shortbread, reminding you of Holland and Scotland respectively. The teacups are fairly small and are made of thin, lightly rippled or wavy bone china made by the Princely Waldenburg Manufacturers. These have handles, unlike the earliest locally made kopkes (also spelled Koppkes) that followed East Asian models.

Someone pours you a cup of tea, and you can tell by its dark-amber color and aroma that it is an Assam-dominated blend, a fairly strong “cup,” or kopke, of tea. (Yes, you still say kopke.)

An East Frisian cream spoon (roomlepel)Brewing East Frisian tea is by some considered an exact science. The water must be soft, preferably East Frisian, and it mustn’t come to a real boil, or you let boiled water cool down before using it. You warm the teapot with some hot water, empty it and then place the tea leaves in it—one teaspoon per cup and one for the pot. Now you let it steep for three to six minutes. It is said that less time makes for more stimulating tea and longer time allows soporific properties to develop. Now you add hot water to fill the pot and finally pour its contents through a strainer into the serving pot. The cups are waiting.

And here’s the twist. If you are used to putting milk and sugar into your cup before pouring … Uh-uh! Don’t do that! Not here. You pour the tea first. Anything else would be heresy on the part of a local and ignorance on the part of a visitor. Now you use sugar tongs to take a nice, large kluntje from the kluntje bowl and place it in your cup. Kluntje (pronounced “klunt-yeh” with “u” as in “put”) might be translated as “lump,” but these days it specifically denotes a large piece of white rock candy. Apparently it is the largest type of rock candy available. (Some German distributors ship these overseas; but don’t settle for the small-lumped and brown types even if they are advertised as “kluntje.”) “Teetied”—a kopke tee with a kluntje and a wulkje roomThe idea is that sweetening be fairly mellow and happen slowly as the kluntje melts in the hot liquid. And now you pour some heavy cream, locally known as room (or rohm, pronounced “rawm”), into the round, deep bowl of a special spoon known as roomlepel. Very carefully, avoiding any spilling of the cream and agitation of the tea, you deposit the rich liquid on the bottom of your tea-filled cup, and finally you withdraw the roomlepel just as gingerly. Stirring equals heresy. Now you have a proper wulkje room (pronounced “vulk-yeh rawm” with “u” as in “put”), a “little cloud of heavy cream.” It envelopes the sweet rock, and the two of them sit there and unhurriedly do their special thing. All you have to do is to wait and see (opwachten), then slowly sip the tea (Tee drinken), gradually making your way down to the rich, sweet treasure on the bottom. This is the most essential part of the East Frisian tea experience.
In most of the world’s languages words for “tea” belong to the following three groups: (1) *cha (throughout Eastern Asia), (2) *chay (throughout the rest of Asia as well as Eastern Europe and large parts of Africa), and (3) *tee throughout the rest of the world. Apparently, all three go back to the same source, though the exact source appears to be unknown. (The story that the Chinese emperor Shénnóng “discovered tea” in 2737 BCE and of course the story that the first tea plant grew from Bodhidharma’s severed eyelids ought to be taken with large grains of salt, or with generous squirts of lemon.) In Eastern Asia, we can trace *cha back to Chinese 茶 (Middle Chinese *dræ > Mandarin chá, Hakka chà, Cantonese chàah, Wu , etc.), and *tee clearly goes back to the Fukienese (Hokkien) Chinese language (“dialect”) where the same word is pronounced . What the actual relationship between *cha and *chay is, if there is any, and if there is an even older source is obscured by the mists of time. English happens to be the language in which words of all three groups are used: (1) British “char” (as in “a cup of char,” or “charwoman,” meaning “tea lady”), (2) “chai” for the South-Asian-style milk-based tea drink, and (3) the ordinary word “tea” (which outside North America can also have the meaning “dinner”).

Taking it home

Now you’re on your way toward turning into an East Frisian tea expert. If you enjoy this “Teetied” tradition (and you’re highly likely to enjoy it) you might try to dazzle your tea-loving friends with this internationally little-known variant, especially on a dreary, drizzly day back in Dartmouth, Dawson Creek, Detroit, Dubbo, Dunedin or Durban.

“Teetied” can be had outside Eastern Friesland as well, namely in various gastronomic establishments all over Germany. They typically have variants of “Friesenstube” (Frisian Room), “friesische Teestube” (Frisian Tea Room) or “altfriesisches Teehaus” (Old Frisian Teahouse) as parts of their German names and descriptions. Many of these establishments double as restaurants, and they tend to offer very eclectic menus, including items with little or no Frisian connection. Be warned, though, that not all of them provide authentic “Teetied,” even if they use genuine East Frisian tea blends. Also, some managers, cooks and waiters wouldn’t know “Frisian” from “freezer burn” if their lives depended on it.

Below are a few online businesses that offer relevant information and/or ship East Frisian tea and accoutrements to customers outside Germany:

Meßmer (Messmer) Tee
Seevetal (near Hamburg), Germany
www.messmer.de (English option)

Ostfriesen Tea and Porzellan Shop
Holland, Iowa, USA

Ostfriesische Tee Gesellschaft Laurens Spethmann
Seevetal (near Hamburg), Germany
www.otg.de (English option)

Tee Gschwendner
Meckenheim, Germany
teatreasures.com (English option)
(also sells cream spoons and rock candy)

The Tea Caddy
Silverdale, Pennsylvania, USA

The Tea Store
West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Tea Time
Palo Alto, California, USA

Tea Treasures, Tea Embassy
Austin, Texas, USA

Upton Tea Imports
Hopkinton, Massachusetts, USA

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