This short story was inspired by a recent trip to Ostfriesland where I got to learn about the region’s special tea.
It’s January 1, and my family packs the car to drive 3.5 hours west of Hamburg, towards the Castle Walls of Lütetsburg. Oma demands we start the new year with an East Friesian Tea Ceremony. Otherwise, we can expect a rough 365 days.
The North Sea waves crash loudly against the pier. The wind chafes the skin and we cannot wait to get back inside. The two-minute walk from the parking spot to Oma’s door feels like eternity. My legs are shaking from the chill and all I can think is, there better be a damn good cup of tea waiting for me inside.
After unbundling ourselves from the multiple layers of warmth – hat, scarf, gloves, coat, weatherproof boots, fleece top, ski pants – which all become piled high next to the front door, we hug and kiss grandma and give her the homemade biscuits we brought in the same Danish cookie tin we pack them in every year. She pats our backs, smiles wide and ushers us to the table.
She’s already set the space — proper linens, teapot warmers, Kluntje sugar, creamer and spoons. Oma asks how the drive was, what we got for Christmas and how school is going. She opens the tin of biscuits, places them on the platter she made at a pottery class as a new bride and moves them to their designated place on the table.
Just as every year, the kettle, full of holy tea water, blows its whistle and Oma tests the temperature to ensure it’s exactly 85 degrees celsius. She pours the soft, hot water into two large porcelain teapots, opens the canister of her special blend of 20 different black tea leaves, drops spoonfuls into the infuser, closes the lid and sets the pot on top of it’s warmer to steep.
The sands of the timer take three minutes to drip through the glass and let us know its time to begin. We take our position and pass the sugar bowl around the table. We each choose the largest rock we can find and place it gently in the middle of our tea cup. Next, we take the pot from it’s warmer, pour the secret blend over the candy sugar and listen to the crackle. Smiling, we feel the excitement and calmness of the action.
We each take our little bowl of fresh-skimmed cream in our right hand, and the miniature silver spoon in our left. Lightly dipping the tip in the cream, we drop little drips of creamy, white silk into the tea; always counter-clockwise. It must be counter-clockwise. The chemical reaction swirls to form the most magnificent piece of art, right before our eyes. We lift our cups in unison, cheers the air, and prepare our minds for the three symbolic tastes, the three chapters of every life story.
The first chapter begins with the taste of tea and cream, beautifully working together. The heavy, smooth milk gives comfort and hope for what’s to come the next twelve months. We sit back in our seat, let out a great sigh and accept what is about to happen. We lean forward for that second sip, for the bitterness of the tea. The smoothness has been whisked away and we are faced with downing a little unpleasantness. We know life has chapters just like this. That it is sure to occur. Our lips scrunch together. We don’t wait too long to take the third and final gulp, to overcome and conquer the moment. The final chapter, a reminder that after bad, there is always good. We taste the sweetness of our foundation — the reward of preparation, endurance and loyalty to the process. It’s the sugar that always makes us crave more.