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Tea’s Popularity
Grows in Italy

BY JANE PETTIGREW

In September 2001, the Italian Tea Club organized its second “Tea College” for tea aficionados. Jane Pettigrew was there.

The Italian Tea Club was established in March 1995 by Monica Meschini and Eugenio Guarducci. The club now has approximately 100 members from all over the country and organizes regular events four times a year for both existing and potential members. President Monica Meschini also organizes an international event once a year so that club members can visit tea related venues and events abroad and meet tea lovers in other countries. The membership list includes tea retailers, wine producers, chocolate makers, pastry chefs, chefs, tea lovers and tea drinkers who are interested in tea’s health message, and with the Italian’s intense interest in and love of good food and drink, meetings and events are true culinary experiences. Events include tea, wine, chocolate, and pasta tastings, launches of new books, tea dinners, tea breakfasts, high teas, tea cocktails, openings of new restaurants and tea shops and demonstrations by specialty chefs. A regular newsletter called Teapot informs members about what is being planned, and representatives in each major area of Italy keep Meschini in touch with news from around the regions.

The annual Tea College is designed to teach the basics about tea to amateurs and professionals, and Meschini makes sure that interested people find out about the events through press coverage in international, national and local newspapers and magazines. This year’s event in Florence was held at the Grand Hotel Minerva and 14 delegates (a colorful and interesting group of tea shop owners, future tea shop owners, chocolatiers, patissiers, and amateur tea lovers) gathered in September for introductions and the first session on the history of tea drinking, the tea plant, different categories of tea and how tea is manufactured. Over the next two days, lectures and discussions covered the brewing of tea, ceramics and other brewing equipment, how water affects the taste of tea, the tea trade and how to buy tea, tasting sessions of different types of tea, tea and health, tea and food, and cooking with tea. Lectures and serious training sessions were punctuated by chocolate and cheese tastings, informal gatherings and lively discussions, and (of course) wonderful meals in some of Florence’s best restaurants. A group of people who were almost completely unknown to each other on the Friday afternoon that they arrived departed knowing that they had made several new close friends amongst the group of people with whom they had shared the two-and-a-half days of tea talk. Some expressed a delight at having discovered a network of like-minded people who were hungry for more knowledge and information about their favorite beverage.

Delegates, trainers, and organizers of the September 2001 Tea College
The interest in tea demonstrated by delegates at this year’s Tea College is reflected in events and activities in several of Italy’s major cities. In Florence, Tea Club president Meschini, a true tea addict and food and beverage consultant who runs in circles every day and somehow survives on 2-3 hours of sleep every night (if that’s not a good advertisement for tea I don’t know what is!) owns a brasserie called Hemingway, which is also a tea and chocolate shop. It serves meals, sells loose teas, tempts visitors with chocolates and offers 50 different tea cocktails and tea toddies. At the time of writing, the shop is undergoing a refit and is due to re-open in mid-October.

Close to Florence, the Experimental Camellia Plantation at Lucca Botanical Garden near the Tuscan village of Sant’Andrea di Compito, is encouraging Italians to try tea as an alternative to coffee. Botanist Guido Cattolica and his family have been growing tea here since the 1980s and the improving quality of the green and black varieties is now beginning to attract recognition from tea specialists from major growing and consuming countries who have visited the plantation. Perhaps one day, Compito tea will be on sale in at least some of Italy’s tea shops.

In Rome, tea is also gaining a higher profile. A new shop recently opened in the center of the city by interior designer and tea fanatic, Guido Schramm. The shop, called Makasar, promises to be a fusion of extremely modern design and traditional tea culture, where customers are attracted and intrigued by the setting but comfortable enough to ask for information and advice in choosing the tea to suit their taste. Schramm has great plans for the shop, which opened in October 2001, and hopes eventually to sell designer items such as furniture and tea related products as well as a wide range of quality specialty teas. After subsequent visits to the new venue, I hope to be able to bring more detailed news of this exciting venture.

One very well-known and much-loved tearoom in Rome, which many travelers will have found and enjoyed over the years, is Babington’s (see center photo, p.65) at the foot of the Spanish Steps in the heart of the city. Established in 1893 in the Via Due Macelli by a Miss Babington (right photo, p.65) and a Miss Cargill (left photo, p.65), the shop quickly became a haven for locals and tourists alike The Roman Herald, a weekly English newspaper, announced a few days before its opening, “A long-felt want in Rome has at last been supplied, and that is a Tearoom where ladies and gentlemen, hard at work sightseeing …could go to refresh themselves with a comforting cup of tea of coffee, with the necessary adjuncts, a quiet read of the best English, Italian and foreign daily newspapers, including the illustrated Christmas numbers …” For two francs a month, the public could use the “reading room.” A second shop in the Piazza San Pietro did not survive urban development but the original shop thrived.

The menu offered customers a very English selection of tea-time treats. Hot buttered scones, muffins, tea-cakes, and toast were the main items on the menu, as well as plum cake, sponge cake and chocolate cakes. All recipes come from Beeton’s famous cookery book and have been faithfully followed ever since.

Between 1900 and the 1930s, many other tearooms opened and thrived in Rome but then gradually disappeared as the Italian passion for coffee grew. But Babington’s continued to prosper, attracting all types of customer including members of the government as well as opposing anti-fascist intelligentsia, aristocrats in exile from other parts of Europe, and tourists. During World War II, despite incredibly difficult conditions and food shortages, faithful clients regularly frequented the tea rooms - perhaps to create some kind of normality for themselves at a time when life offered few happy or “normal” moments. New recipes were created to cope with a lack of staple ingredients, and the service of cups of tea went on much as at other times, and when the Allied troops arrived in Rome in 1944, miraculously the shop had survived and was still doing steady business.

Over the subsequent years, radical changes in society and life style, and a massive increase in the number of tourists visiting Rome, presented the Cargills - now owners of Babingtons’ - with new challenges. It became important now to introduce alcohol, lunchtime snacks, modern and innovative dishes, but tea was still the most popular item on the menu. In order to ensure that the shop offered only the best teas, the family contacted Woodhams, a long-established company of tea merchants in the City of London and asked the tea tasters there to create special blends for Babingtons. But as the tea blends had been tasted using London water, one of the Cargill family made a trip to London carrying a large container of water from Piazza di Spagna to make quite sure that the Babington blends was perfect for their local supply.

In 1979, the Japanese discovered Babingtons and invited the family to open a shop in Tokyo. And so two branches of the shop were constructed in Tokyo and served scones, cakes, and tea just as the Rome tearooms do. Sadly, both replica tearooms closed down in 1998. Milan also had a Babingtons for a year in 1991-1992 but the town’s different life-styles and different attitudes meant that the venture did not thrive and so also closed down. All the energy is now focused on the original Rome Tearoom.

And today, the energy behind the shop is that of Chiara Bedini, great granddaughter of the first Ms. Cargill. Chiara runs the company jointly with her aunt, Diana Bedini and a cousin, Rory Bruce. The traditional British theme of the tearoom has been continued with wooden furniture and comfortable and calm feel to the room, “Old Cries of London” on the walls, and neatly-clad staff who act as hostesses rather than waitresses and welcome guests as if to a family drawing room.

Over the years, the menu has evolved to suit changing tastes and the tearoom now offers English style breakfasts, lunchtime dishes (often named after famous people who have visited the tearoom in the past), favorite afternoon tea items such as scones, tea-cakes, and all sorts of traditional English puddings, and Christmas pudding with brandy butter. As in the old days, all the baking is carried out on the premises and the kitchen also produces homemade chutneys, jams, and marmalades. Thirteen different teas are on offer in the tearoom and the retail counter offers 20 ready-packed loose-leaf teas - all still supplied by Woodhams of London. Chiara Bedini is planning to organize special events such as tea tastings at the tearoom and hopes to also run courses for amateur tea lovers who wish to more about the various teas offered.

Over the 109 years of its existence, Babingtons has certainly changed and developed. In 1993, the writers of the shop’s biography said, “The world changes. Outside the metro station of Piazza di Spagna now disgorges thousands of people every hour and the Piazza has been transformed by their presence into a whirlpool of perpetual and multi-colored confusion. All the old shops and hotels have gone; even Bocca’s bookshop has retired to a corner of its original premises. Only Babingtons has withstood this barbarian invasion.” If that was true in 1993, another nine years are bound to have brought further changes to the locality. It is certainly doing its bit in Italy to promote the very English habit of taking tea.


Tea & Coffee - May/June 2002
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