By Elena Tarasova, BA 2013-17
We all know coffee and cappuccinos are synonymous with the Italian culture, but what about coffee’s quieter and subtler counterpart…tea! The art of tea drinking has been around for centuries and continues to be an integral cultural point for people around the world.
Take the tea ceremonies in Japan for instance; aspects from the conversation to the clothing worn by participants are strictly bound in tradition circling around the important tea itself. Another example, continents away from Japan, is the popular South African Rooibos tea that boasts the benefits of antioxidants, restful sleep and clearer skin and is still an important staple both in economic exports and culturally for those who live there today. This list could go on and on describing the various cultures of the world that use tea for its health and cultural significance. So, being a tea aficionado led me to think, does Firenze or Italia in general have a tea history of any sort?
While sipping on my hibiscus tea, I began my research with Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer. Hoping to find the correlation of the tea genesis in Italy and Marco Polo’s return from the motherland of tea – China – seemed like a good place to start. I discovered that for a long time it was theorized that Marco Polo brought back both the noodle and tea to Italy, but in recent years these theories have been disproven. Signore Polo turned out to be a dead end in my attempts to uncover the truth of tea’s history in Italy.
As it turns out, tea found its way over to Europe during the Renaissance. The first Western accounts of tea were found in the translated journals by the Venetian magistrate Giovanni Battista Ramusio. He was the first to inquire about ‘this beverage’ the explorers of the world mentioned in their journals he was translating. Around the same time, Catholic, specifically Jesuit missionaries, began traveling to the Asian continent and documenting the sacred healing powers of tea. Only then did tea find its way to Italy as a delicacy. Jesuit accounts about China and tea practices were eventually banned by the Catholic Church, making tea known and accessible only to members of the upper echelon of society.
It is no secret that the coffee reigns king of beverages in Italy. In today’s market, tea is generally sold for digestive purposes to Italians. Tea does retain its notion of health in Italy, however, is often used for aiding recovery during sickness, which is why Italians generally choose another beverage over tea at cafes because of this specific connotation. The most popular tea ingredients in Italy are fennel, liquorice and anise. Popular English black tea brands can be found easily as well and are often served in the home with milk or a lemon slice.
If you would like to delve into the expansive human history of tea and the concise history of tea in Italy, I thought it would be helpful to name a few places around Firenze that will no doubt titillate your tea senses.
By Piazza Pitti there is a delightful teashop, Oronero (Piazza Pitti 1R) where you can buy not only delectable teas, but also some chocolate! Down the way from the Arno and Piazza Pitti you can find Tealicious (Via Romana 26R), a great tearoom where you can buy quantities of various teas made in the back room of the shop. Tealicious displays all their original teas so, just ask to taste or smell any of them.
No matter what drink you have in your hand, a cheers to you!
Photo by Allison Boyd and tea from Meykadeh Cafe