Tea in the land of espresso. My thoughts
Two weeks ago, a post by Morgan Certner on the blog TCHING caught my attention: “Tea & Travel: Tea in the Land of Espresso”. Certner considers the reasons why (and I quote) “tea culture hasn’t really made its way to Italy”, a country where tea is “sparse and if there, buried in the back of a menu”. Certner’s point: Italians consume coffee standing at the counters of Italy's ubiquitous bars (that’s how cafes are called in Italy) and throw back their espresso in a matter of minutes. “Such is the Italian way of consuming coffee and I think this rapid enjoyment of the beverage has stalled the adoption of tea…or it at least must be a contributing factor”.
Being an Italian (born and raised) tea lover, I feel I should weigh in on the matter. Like Certner, I appreciate and drink coffee too (although not as regularly as tea) and I don’t think the two beverages are mutually exclusive.
Before delving deeper into the status of tea in Italy, we need to start from coffee. I’ll attempt to answer two questions here:
- Has the “rapid enjoyment” of coffee in Italy “stalled the adoption of tea”?
- How sparse is tea in Italy?
1) My answer is no. The culprit is not its “rapid enjoyment”, but rather what coffee stands for and how deeply ingrained it is in the Italian culture. Let me explain. In Italy, coffee is a matter of national pride. Coffee and espresso are synonyms. The word “espresso” literally means “fast”, so the whole standing at the counter, in-and-out experience makes sense. But this is only a fragment of the big picture. According to an Italian survey (*), 89% of Italians drink coffee mostly at home. To prepare their coffee at home, Italians use the ubiquitous stove top coffee maker (moka). It’s a ritual, it takes time, the stove top coffee maker has to be heated on low to ensure the best result. It’s the epitome of slow living. According to the same survey, Italians consider coffee one of the pleasures of life. It’s an experience meant to be savored and shared. The vast majority of Italians consider coffee energizing, a great pick-me-up during the day, a beverage to share with others, an experience to be shared. 48% of Italians think coffee is a great way to slow down and even have some me-time. This is the complete opposite of “rapid enjoyment”, which is usually the preferred option for people who just have a few minutes to take a break from work and have to be in and out quickly, but can still enjoy a little pick-me-up.
Culturally and historically, coffee culture is deeply rooted in Italy. In the 18th century, the Enlightenment developed in coffee houses. In 1764 a scholarly magazine called “Il caffè” was published in Milan. Coffee was considered a beverage able to enlighten. Later on, in the 19th century, the movement that led to the political unification of the country developed in coffee houses, too.
Coffee has a “slow-living” dimension and is a very social beverage, plus it has a deep cultural and historical value. Why would Italians want to replace it with tea? But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for tea in Italy.
2) Italians are in a complicated relationship with tea. They are still confused when it comes to the correct spelling of the word “tea” in their own language! There are three different variations: tè, thè, the. According to the Accademia della Crusca, the Italian society for scholars and linguists for the preservation of the Italian language, the correct spelling is "tè".
Reflecting on tea in Italy was keeping me up at night, so I asked my sister Chiara, a tea lover, baker, blogger and designer to help me out. We brainstormed together and she came up with a few observations. Most Italians still consider tea (and herbal teas) a beverage for the wintertime and for when you're sick. Green tea is often associated with weight loss and other health benefits.
Tea is now gaining popularity in Italy but it certainly doesn’t have that social and cultural dimension like in Japan and China. Italians don’t drink tea with their meals. They might have a cup of tea for breakfast or with a sweet snack, dessert, cake or cookies. They drink their tea sweetened and with a wedge of lemon and iced tea is not very popular either. Up until a decade or so ago, the only teas most Italians were familiar with were English Breakfast and Earl Grey and with the British tradition of afternoon tea.
This has changed. On the one hand, tea is a fashionable trend. There are a lot of trendy Japanese restaurants where drinking green tea with your sushi or sashimi platter is part of the fancy vibe. There’s even a matcha cafe in Milan, with avocado toast and all. Basically, an Instagrammer’s paradise. The power of social media and more affordable intercontinental flights mean people can come into contact with other cultures (more or less) firsthand.
On the other hand, there is some genuine interest in the beverage steeping in Italy. Last month, the first Italian tea expo was held in Bologna. There’s an Italian magazine Fogli di Tè completely dedicated to tea. There are many Italian tea bloggers who are educating people about tea, like my friend Carlotta. There’s even a small tea farm in the heart of Tuscany. And last but not least, there’s the experimental and culinary side of tea, both as an ingredient and as gourmet tea and food pairings, like what the Michelin-starred restaurant Piazza Duomo in Alba, Piedmont, offers.
With some tea education, Italians will realize that there’s so much more to tea than sad blends in sad tea bags and discover its untapped potential in terms of flavor and variety. I’m sure they will embrace it, not as an alternative to coffee, but as a different, yet enjoyable, hedonistic experience.
A special thanks to my sister Chiara for the tea pictures.