On our way to Berlin, where we have been spending the summer, we decided to take a little detour for a few days. After some consideration we chose a place that can quite rightly call itself the tea capital of the world. No, we didn't detour via Turkey or Morroco, but East Frisia. Where, I hear you ask? If like me the most you knew about Frisia was that it was somewhere that produced a lot of black and white cows, prepared to be amazed.
On the North Sea coast of Germany - in fact Germany's most north-westerly point - just next to Holland, lies East Frisia, or in German, Ostfriesland. It's a rural area that does indeed have lots of those black and white Frisian cows and flat rich soil perfect for farming. The interior landscape reminded me of the fens of East Anglia but with more trees; and the coast has wide sandy beaches and miles and miles of mudflats that are home to a whole host of wildlife.
All very nice you might think but not amazing. What came as a genuine surprise to me though was the incredibly rich and vibrant tea culture of the area. If East Frisia were a country (rather than a region) it would be the world's biggest consumer of tea per capita - ahead of the UK, Ireland and Kuwait, who sit just behind them in the tea-drinking hit parade. If you consider that Germany as a whole is 44th in the world tea-drinking stakes you can imagine what a defining feature of this region tea is.
Needless to say that in our four-day trip we drank a lot of of the amber stuff. There are a few things that define East Frisian tea culture: the first is the tea itself, a blend of around 80% Assam mixed with Ceylon or other brighter leaves. There are a few local large-scale tea producers such at Bünting or Thiele and lots of smaller artisanal blenders including cafés that make their own blends specially for their customers. That included the first place we experienced East Frisian tea.
It was located in the pretty little town of Greetsiel (probably the prettiest place we visited during our trip). We spotted Is Teetied almost as soon as we arrived and after exploring and eating a light lunch we made our way there for afternoon tea. As well as a couple of slices of delicious apple cake we were brought the paraphernalia to enjoy a genuine East Frisian teatime. The teapot comes sitting upon a Stövchen or a little hotplate that contains a candle to keep the tea warm so there's no need for a cosy. At first I felt all British and anti this candle nonsense but now I have to admit it's a pretty great way to keep the tea warm right up until the last cup.
The really distinctive thing about the tea ceremony though is how you serve the cup itself. In the bottom of a small china tea cup you place a Kluntje or really large sugar crystal. You then pour over the tea enjoying the crack you hear as the tea hits the Kluntje. When the cup is half full, using a special spoon you pour double (heavy) cream around the inside edge of the cup creating clouds in the tea. But wait: don't stir it! It's meant to look like that. That spoon on your saucer is for something else.
Then you begin to drink. The idea is that with your first mouthful you experience the creaminess at the top of the cup; then you have a bitter, refreshing mouthful; and you finish with a sweet hit from the tea containing the sugar crystal which has by now largely dissolved. Then you start all over again. It's considered bad form to have anything less than three cups which suited me just fine. Your host will continue to fill your cup (one shouldn't really fill one's own cup) until you place that little spoon from your saucer into to your teacup to signify you've had enough.
It all sounds quite involved but I've got to tell you, it becomes pretty blooming addictive. Given that I'm someone who doesn't take sugar in hot drinks, that sweet hit at the end is fantastic! After our first taste of this tea-ambrosia we decided we wouldn't let a day in East Frisia pass without experiencing at least one little tea ceremony, so we managed to enjoy a pot (obviously with accompanying cakes) at Hotel Rodenbäck in Neuharlingersiel; at Café ten Cate in Norden; and at Leidenschaften in Jever. It wasn't until we visited the interesting (but currently in temporary accommodation until their new building is finished) Ostfriesichen Teemuseum in Norden that we found out we had been doing things wrong by overfilling our cups and plonking the cream in any old where (as you can see in some of the photos) as opposed to in a circle round the edge of the cup. All of our afternoon teas were good but I think my favourite was probably our first at Is Teetied where the tea was bold and refreshing, the cakes were incredibly tasty and the Strandkorb (which is a beach chair that looks like a big basket) we sat in in the little courtyard garden was just perfect.
Obviously we bought some tea and Kluntjes home with us and we've since gone and bought a Stövchen to keep our pot warm; we've been enjoying our own little East Frisian tea ceremonies ever since. Of course locals there will tell you that even with the right tea and all the paraphernalia you can't enjoy East Frisian tea anywhere else because nowhere else has East Frisian water, but we're doing our best!
We really enjoyed our trip to East Frisia. There are some lovely little towns that are really nice to wander around whilst building up an appetite for your next tea break: Greetsiel, Carolinensiel (where we stayed) and Jever were probably our favourites. The area is most well known for Wattwanderung - walking barefoot over the aforementioned mudflats looking at the crabs and other interesting local fauna - but with our pups in tow we only did a little bit of mud-squelching whilst playing ball. Most of the coastal areas are a bit disappointing with ugly caravan parks and unattractive ferry terminals and car parks blighting them. But our tea adventures more than made up for that. Plus we listened to Edwardian spy story The Riddle of the Sands - which is set in the area - whilst driving around, which kept us amused. We didn't make it across to any of the islands (which can be reached from the aforementioned ferry terminals) but I certainly wouldn't rule out a return visit to the area. Now I know the world tea capital lies between my two homes I think it's highly likely I'll be popping by and drinking that genuine East Frisian tea again in the not-too-distant future.