It is impossible to be in Morocco for long before you are offered a cup of frothy, steaming mint tea. A key part of the legendary Moroccan hospitality, hot sweet tea is used to welcome a guest, to revive a flagging spirit, to facilitate social interaction and to oil a business transaction. In a predominantly Muslim country where many people do not drink alcohol, tea is used for almost every social situation.
The tea leaves used in Moroccan tea are typically Chinese green gunpowder tea. A Tea Museum is planned in collaboration with the Chinese Government for Essaouira to celebrate this long-standing link. A preview of the new museum is on exhibition in the city’s Musée Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah until mid-July 2015. The exhibition offers an opportunity to learn about the long-standing tradition of mint tea in Morocco and the role of Essaouira in its popularity.
The decision of Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah (Sultan Mohammed III) to make Essaouira (then Mogador) Morocco’s principal port was instrumental in the propagation of Moroccan tea culture. The Sultan wanted to open Morocco to international trade to profit from the opportunity to export Africa’s wealth and modernise through the influence of the West. To achieve this, he commissioned a French architect to build the Kasbah (King’s Quarters – the basis of the medina we see today) and invited 10 key Jewish merchant families to manage the trade through a newly foritfied port.
Soon goods were flowing from the camel trains onto vessels and across the oceans. Essaouira became the port for Timbuktu, also a key Jewish enclave at the time. During the 19th century, Mogador was receiving an influx of consulates, negociants, merchants, Jewish families and the rural poor, all seeking to make their fortune. The merchant navies of the European colonial powers called in at Essaouira on their way to and from the ports of England, Holland and France. The goods exported included hides, olive oil, sugar and slaves.
The import of tea through Mogador and the subsequent development of a significant element of Moroccan contemporary culture is allegedly a result of equal parts happenstance, geopolitics and economic opportunism. British ships were unable to deliver tea to the Baltic ports in 1854 due to the Crimean War. The decision was taken to offload this cargo in Mogador and Tangiers, thereby providing access to a product which hitherto had only been offered as a gift between British royalty and their Moroccan counterparts. Moroccans were already using local herbs with medicinal and culinary qualities in infusions. With the addition of green tea, with its inherent caffeine, a new added benefit was achieved!
Originally from Al Andalus, the Corcos family became influential merchants and dominated the tea trade into Mogador. Solomon Ben Abraham Corcos was son of Maimon, one of the original 10 ‘Sultan’s merchants.’ Solomon became British consul in Mogador in 1822 and was said to be very influential in British politics. This connection with the UK – particularly among Mogador Jews and their Manchester kin – not only brought the tea into Morocco but also the silver and stainless steel teapots and accessories used to serve it. Today, of course, thanks to another shift in the global economy, the tea comes from China, as do the teapots!
A traditional Moroccan tea ceremony is as elaborate as any in Asia. It requires a kettle on a brazier, the trinity of teapot, tea caddy and sugar pot and a certain degree of flourish! Sugar cubes are common today, but many still use sugar cones in rural areas and they are still offered as wedding gifts. Tea is traditionally prepared by the man of the house in front of his guests, first by rinsing the tea once or twice in boiled water to remove the bitterness. Once the pot is rinsed and it is refilled with hot water to about 3/4 full. The pot is placed on the heat to allow the tea to brew. When the leaves rise to the surface before the water boils completely, the pot is removed from the heat. Now, the sugar along with the mint. The flavour develops through the dramatic high-pouring of the tea into small, often ornate, glasses and pouring it back into the pot. This mixes the sugar through the tea without stirring. The best tasting tea has a crown (raza) of froth on top.
Depending on the season and the occasion, many other fresh herbs are infused into tea in Morocco. In winter, absinthe (shiba) is believed to heat the body. Herbs such as thyme (zaaytra), oregano (zatar) or rosemary (azir) are believed to aid digestion. Other popular additions are lemon verbena (louiza) or sage (salmia).
Although it may have foreign origins, the sharing of tea is a quintessential element of Moroccan culture. Be sure on your trip to Morocco to take the time to share a glass or two of atay b’nana (mint tea) with the locals.
Written by Lynn Sheppard
Lynn Sheppard has lived in Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast for more than 2 years, supporting local non-profits, writing and becoming an expert on all things Swiri (ie. Essaouiran). She blogs at Maroc-phile.com and for other travel industry clients.