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The East Frisian Tea Ceremony

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Ask any German what they know about their compatriots in the most northwestern corner of their country, and one of the first two items they will name will be 'tea drinking'.

Where is East Frisia?

East Frisia or Ostfriesland (German pronunciation: Osst FREECE Land) is the westernmost coastal stretch of Germany between the mouth of the Ems in the west and almost to the mouth of the Weser in the east. It includes the seven German Frisian islands of Borkum, Juist, Norderney, Baltrum, Langeoog, Spiekeroog and Wangerooge, and the towns of Aurich and Emden. To the west, on the other side of the Ems, are the Netherlands.

Due to its proximity to the sea, the area has a tradition of shipbuilding, smuggling, trading and piracy. Its heyday was in the 17th - 19th Centuries, when the European trading companies were bringing coffee, tea, chocolate, spices, silk and cotton from China, India and Africa.

Why Tea?

While coffee was catching on in the Catholic South of Europe, the Protestant countries were acquiring a taste for tea. (Not least out of protest against the Catholic taste). First deliveries of tea to East Frisia came via the Dutch East Indian company in the 17th Century and, by the 18th Century, it was well established as the drink for social occasions. The drinking of tea was encouraged by the Protestant movement (most of the population of the area was Protestant by this time) as it provided a sober alternative to the ubiquitous beer, which was affecting the efficiency of the workforce as well as impairing the health and piety of the East Frisians.

Because of the longevity and general good health of the Chinese and Japanese people that the first European explorers and traders encountered, the general impression was that tea must be a magical herb which cured all ills and improved resistance to diseases. This was backed up by the ceremonious way in which the tea was served. The Asian tea drinkers also attributed their good health to their tea, which, they claimed, had many healing properties.

The act of boiling the water alone, of course, was an improvement in hygiene over just drinking the water - but drinking the local water was hardly an option (see below).

The China

European visitors to China noticed that the tea was drunk out of white porcelain, which they admired very much. They thought that this enhanced the tea's beneficial properties and started to import the Chinese teacups and pots. The race was then on to reproduce this delicate substance in Europe, which started an industry for which places like Staffordshire in the UK, Meissen in Germany and Delft in the Netherlands became well-known.

The East Frisians nowadays use tiny, dainty, shallow teacups with matching saucers. In the 18th Century, the tea was tipped into the saucer and drunk from this, as can be seen in a picture, now hanging in the East Frisian Tea Museum in Norden, one of the northenmost towns of East Frisia.

The Ingredients

The tea is always served with a special kind of sugar and a certain kind of cream.

The sugar traditionally used is called 'Kluntjes' (pronounced Kloont-yers). These are large, single clear crystals of sugar, which are impossible to bite and almost impossible to suck! They are left to dissolve in the tea. Stirring, as we shall see later, is strictly frowned upon!

The story behind this is that, in the early days of European sugar production from sugar beet, the lower classes could not afford to buy it, but collected the residue from the bottoms of the sugar barrels, where the last of the syrup had solidified during refining. This was considered really precious and each little lump of sugar had to serve several cups of tea. The last tiny bit left in the cup was then given to the children as a treat.

The cream, however, was in plentiful supply, as each household had a goat which they could milk at will.

These days, cow's cream is more likely to be used, and is produced in a certain consistency which is unavailable outside the area of East Frisia. Normal single cream is a reasonable substitute, but using milk or evaporated milk would constitute sacrilege to an expat East Frisian.

The Tea

Due to the peaty earth and the low altitude, the water in this part of the world has an unpleasant earthy, salty taste. Both beer and tea help to disguise this taste. The tea is a special mix of Assam and Ceylon teas, and is brewed very strong. All German tea companies have an East Frisian blend (Ostfriesentee), but only a few tea importers in East Frisia can claim to produce the genuine article.

Throughout the tea ceremony, the tea will be kept hot on a little stove, heated by a night light, and is only strained when it leaves the pot to be poured into the cup.

The Tea Ceremony

If an East Frisian family invites a visitor to partake of tea with them, they will no doubt ask their guest if he has had tea in East Frisia before, and if the answer is negative, they will take great pride in explaining everything to their guest.

Each guest will find at his place a small, shallow, thin China cup, with a saucer and a miniature spoon. First, you must put your 'Kluntje' in the cup. Then the host will pour you about half a cup of the tea onto the sugar, which may crackle a little, as it starts to dissolve. Then he will take a tiny jug of the special cream, which is equipped with a tiny ladle, and spoon a small amount of cream on to the top of the tea1. This disperses in little clouds and then settles near the top of the tea. As long as it stands, which, according to custom, shouldn't be long, this layer of cream will keep the heat in.

The small amount of liquid is drunk in three gulps. Firstly, the top layer of tea with a high cream content; this is to line the stomach for the stronger beverage to come. The second layer is the hot tea, to be drunk in the second gulp. The third time it is swallowed, the tea is sweet with the sugar lump sitting in the bottom. The sugar must remain in the cup, for almost immediately, your host will be waiting to pour the second cup. The procedure is repeated for at least three cups.

Then, and only then, can the spoon be used. When you have had enough tea, you are allowed to place your spoon in the cup to indicate you have had enough.

1The order in which this is carried out is indisputable, whereas celebrants of the English tea 'ceremony' are often divided. Of course, the English put milk in their tea, but which goes first: milk or tea? This is discussed on this website by Douglas Adams, and by various h2g2 Researchers.

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