If I were to ask you which nation consumes the most tea per person, what would you guess? If you said “The U.K”, you’d be wrong. We Brits are in third place. Ireland comes in at number two and, considering the country we’ve just arrived in you should have guessed it, that’s right: Turkey. And it’s not even close. On average, Turks drink 3.5 cups of tea a day and up to ten cups in the winter. Tea houses in Turkey are places of socialisation, an occasion to sit, talk and relax.
Our first experience of Turkey, however, was far from relaxing. In order to cross the border, we had to navigate a ludicrous three-queue system. First, we had to wait in the passport queue to get a passport stamp. With this stamp, we were able to buy a visa, which required waiting in the visa queue. Once the visa was bought we then had to rejoin the passport queue to get our visa stamped. Only when we had stamps in both our passport and our visa could we join the final queue to get or passport restamp. This process took hours!
Once we were in Turkey, however, were picked up within minutes and were happy again. It always felt great to be picked up in a new country because it implied the place was amenable to hitchhiking. We were taken 108 km to Rize, a province in eastern Turkey especially famous for its tea. The name “Rize” means “mountain slopes”, which is what we could see to our left, huge and green, adorned with stripes of tea gardens. These undulating stripes of the tea gardens have the pattern of a wet beach when the tide goes out, just like in southeast Asia. To our right, the sun sparkled off the Black Sea, so-named not because of its colour but rather because, in ancient times, colours were used to represent cardinal directions. So “black” meant “north” because the body of water lies north of Greece.
The tea is so good in Rize, so they say, it revolutionised the drinking habits of a nation, transforming the national drink from coffee to tea. We into the city keen to see just how good this tea could be. We didn’t have to look far, there are as many tea houses in Rize as there are canals in Venice.
The one we found had modest wooden furniture and one waiter to serve 20 or so tables. Fortunately, we were the only ones in there except another table of six men. We soon learned that these types of places were more often than not male-dominated. We sat up at the bar because we didn’t intend to stay long -we were seriously behind schedule after all. One of the men, his interest piqued by the relatively rare sight of tourists in this part of the country, struck up a conversation with us. He had a neat white beard flickered with black., His dark eyebrows sat above small, yet expressive, slightly milky eyes. His rudimentary level of English, I suspected, may have been in decline over the years but with the help of his bobble-hatted friends, he was able to spin us a yarn. The Rize province, he told us, had been a desperately poor area but the population and the economy had exploded into life thanks to the introduction of tea. Nowadays, every second adult in Rize works in the tea industry, himself included until his retirement.
The waiter brought two small tulip-shaped glasses sitting on round saucers. Next to the glasses was what looked like two shiny, metal teapots, fused one above the other, with two handles and two spouts. The steamy tea was poured purposely slowly, like in an advert, presumably so we could appreciate the deep, reddish mahogany colour of the liquid swirling into the glass. A pile of pristine white cubes of beet sugar came in a separate dish.
It was daunting taking that first sip. Our new friends had all edged closer to the bar with expectant faces as if we were toddlers unwrapping a Christmas present. Even the waiter stayed at the table, shuffling his feet in anticipation.
Micahel played his part well. He closed his eyes, inhaling the aromas.
“Mmmmmmm…” he droned, before opening one eye and, like a Sommelier, he swirled the tea in his glass.
He took a sip and waited for a couple of seconds for dramatic effect. The cafe was silent.
“It’s good!” he said, much to the enjoyment of the onlookers, who were all grins, nodding heads and back pats.
We glugged the tea and left to hit the road, grabbing a chicken kebab from a street vendor on the way.