The most identifiable tradition of my East Frisian ancestors is a tea ceremony. In fact, East Friesland is the tea drinking capital of the world. Since I am a tea drinker this delights me. I don’t know if my great grandfather’s family brought this tradition with them to Illinois–it never made it into our family lore–but as I seek to reconnect with my East Frisian ancestors, the tea ceremony feels just right.
Tea first came to East Friesland from Asia in the 17th century, via the Dutch East India Company. Many Frisians were sailors on those trading (and colonization) journeys. Tea began to compete with beer as a beverage of choice. By the 18th century, when most of the Dutch and Germans were choosing coffee, the East Frisians continued with tea. It was drunk a few times a day, morning, afternoon, and evening, and helped to warm you up in the cold rainy weathers of this land near the North Sea, as well as make a break in the working day.
There is a very specific way to make and serve East Frisian tea. You start with the soft water of the area, and then a blend of particular dark tea leaves, mostly Assam, with several others blended in. There are traditional porcelain pots and cups. You heat the pot with hot water, then empty it, and put in one spoon of loose tea per cup, plus one for the pot. Then you pour water that has just boiled, but is not boiling, over the leaves, to let it steep for 3-5 minutes. Then it is strained, and poured into cups into which a piece of kluntje, or rock sugar has already been placed. Then, a small amount of heavy cream is gently poured into the sides of the cup, without stirring, and it forms a small cloud floating in the tea.
It is a communal event, a daily ceremony. Someone pours the tea for everyone. When drinking, the idea is to taste each layer separately–the creamy layer, the clear tea layer, and the sweetness of the final layer. One site said that the creamy layer represents the (cloudy) sky, the clear tea represents the water, and the sugar represents the land. It is customary to have (at least) three cups of tea, and you place your spoon into the cup to signify when you have had enough.
There is an East Frisian saying, “Opwachten un Tee drinken.” “Wait and see and drink some tea.” I was able to find an East Frisian tea blend to buy online, and also some fairly similar kluntje–though not quite the same. But when these arrive, I will have to try it myself, in honor of my great-grandfather and his family. One last thought–I am curious that there is also a connection to tea on the other side of my ancestral tree–the tea doll of the Innu people. Somewhere in the middle, I am sitting here right now with a mug of black tea. I find myself wondering how all these peoples have come together in me, and whether I might learn from their wisdom and bring some healing to their brokenness.