Tea Traditions — Europe

Generally speaking, we tea lovers in the U.S. have Europeans to thank. Specifically, the Dutch. Holland was thriving, with great artists like Rembrandt, a rich culture and traditions, and strong ties to areas of the world such as the Far East that supplied much sought after goods like tea. That tea was the catalyst for the development of a host of traditions.

In the early 17th century, tea first arrived in Holland from China, which had been exporting to other Asian countries, but was now expanding into a new market. From there the Dutch sold tea to other European countries, including Britain, a monopoly they held until the early 18th century. They also brought tea with them to their colonies in the “New World” (North America).

One of the biggest differences tea brought to people’s lives in most parts of Europe was an extra meal during the day. In addition to the typical breakfast and dinner, they started the tradition of “taking tea” in the afternoon to keep their “motors” running. The upper classes served a “low” or “afternoon” tea around 4 pm and the middle and lower classes had a “high” tea (more like a meal) around 5 or 6 pm. The terms “low” and “high” here refer to the height of the tables used. Low tables are what we in the U.S. call “coffee tables.” High tables are regular “sitting at” tables. Still, taking tea seems to have been a “bridge between the classes,” where everyone stopped their labors to enjoy a potful with appropriate treats.

Tea competes with coffee as the beverage of choice for break time throughout much of Europe. The type of tea preferred also varies. While Britain, Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands (Holland), and non-Mediterranean parts of Europe go for black teas (especially since they are less likely to drink a lot of coffee), other European countries such as France tend toward green teas and herbal tisanes as a break from coffees.

Regardless of the type of tea or herbal tisane, tearooms (or Salon de Thé as they’re called in France) are one of the most popular ways to imbibe. That’s because “taking tea” is as much about socializing to Europeans as it is about fueling up until dinner time. A whole etiquette revolves around it. You don’t have to observe all of these things, but if you want to experience a real high-falootin’ tea time while visiting overseas, you might want to keep them in mind:

  • Gloves are not quite the fashion these days, but if it’s a rather high-end (socially speaking) tea party, you can wear white gloves as long as you remove them before sitting at table. If you are going to be standing up, you can keep them on.
  • Hats for outdoor teas are sensible and can be quite fashionable.
  • Pinkies should definitely be kept near their companion fingers at the side of the teacup or mug, not pointing at a dangerous, possibly eye-poking angle.
  • Spoons are not weapons and should not be used to “attack” the tea, but instead to fold the tea gently in a back and forth motion a few times and then placed on the saucer (never left in the teacup — again, that eye-poking hazard).
  • Cups are for containing tea and sipping it, not for waving about as a way of punctuating your statements on the topics ranging from major issues in the world to some horrid TV show you got rooked into watching by an appealing promo.
  • If there is only one scone, finger sandwich, muffin, or slice of buttered toast left, and you are the host of the tea party, let one of your guests have it. If you are a guest, do not yank it from the mouth of whomever grabbed it first. Good losers are always better guests.

This is just an overview. More details on tea time in various European countries will be tackled in future articles. Meanwhile, engage in your own tea time traditions. Enjoy!

A.C.’s blog, Tea Time with A.C. Cargill, is a great place to learn more about the various tea traditions.

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