East Friesian comfort demands that a cup of tea always be ready.
– An East Friesian saying
As the daughter of a mother who was born and raised in the Baltic harbor city of Kiel in northern Germany, I had the distinct pleasure of enjoying the wonderful German tradition of afternoon “Kaffee und Kuchen” (coffee and cake). During my frequent trips to Germany as a child, I spent many long afternoons among aunts and uncles, grandparents, and cousins savoring some of the best desserts in the world. The French and the Italians may be better known for their sweets, but, in my mind, nothing is better than German desserts and breads.
Although the tradition called for coffee, tea was occasionally a satisfactory stand-in. It was not until very recently, though, that I read about the rich tea history of East Friesland, a coastal region on the North Sea in the northwest corner of the German state of Lower Saxony. Just a few hours west of Kiel, East Friesland is known for its independent spirit, having avoided adopting a feudalistic system during medieval times and playing an important role in the Reformation. This independent streak, as well as its proximity to the Netherlands, made it the perfect spot for the development of a rather distinctive tea culture.
Not long after the Dutch began importing tea from Asia, Protestant clergymen in East Friesland jumped aboard the tea bandwagon, promoting tea as a way of counteracting the abuse of alcohol. In addition, adding tea to water made the poor water in the region more palatable. During the French Revolution, when “liberty, equality, fraternity” became the well-known rallying cry of the day, the East Friesians were content with their own slogan – “lieber tee” – rather tea!
For the people of East Friesland, tea is not tea unless it is strong black tea – often a blend of teas from Assam, Darjeeling, and Sri Lanka – served over kluntjes, a rock candy sugar that melts slowly and makes a crackling sound as the tea is poured. To this, a spoonful of heavy cream is added, which sinks into the tea then rises to the surface, where it floats like a tiny white cloud. Stirring the tea is strictly discouraged, as an evolving taste over the course of drinking a cup is valued over a consistent one. Another saying concerning the drinking of Friesian tea stipulates that “three are East Friesian right,” meaning no one drinks just one cup, but rather a minimum of three.
Tea is generally served in small porcelain cups and is accompanied by cookies, cakes, and other delicacies. During the colder winter months, brown rum is also added to one’s tea, as extra protection against the icy winds blowing off the North Sea. As in many other parts of the world, guests are always greeted with a hot cup of tea.
Today, a quarter of the tea Germany imports is consumed in East Friesland, where the per-capita consumption is equal to that of England’s. So devoted are East Friesians to their tea that in 1995, they opened the East Friesland Tea Museum, the first such museum of its kind in Europe.