- It is thought that tea was first introduced to Morocco in the 18th century by Queen Anne Stuart of Great Britain, supplies being sent as a ‘softener’ to Sultan Moulay Ismail, the ruler of the Alaouite dynasty, in the hope that he would release British prisoners from Morocco. Subsequently, tea became a frequently-offered gift by other European diplomats also as more and more trade routes opened up between Europe and Morocco.
- Not only did Queen Anne send tea to Morocco, but it is also believed that she sent small Chinese porcelain cups out of which it should be drunk, as well as a teapot in which to make the drink.
- Although at first tea was only consumed by the Sultans and their entourage, thereby making it a symbol of social class, gradually its consumption spread to the wealthy, the caravan traders and the tribal chiefs, then to the rest of the population.
- By the beginning of the 19th century, imported tea had become indispensable and was considered an integral part of Moroccan culture. It had to be strong and sweet, however, and milk was never added.
- There was no shortage of sugar for sweetening the tea in Morocco. In fact, during the reign of the Saadian dynasty (1554-1659), Italian marble was imported for their palaces by exchanging it, weight for weight, against sugar, such was its abundance! The El-Badi Palace in Marrakech was one of the palaces for which this marble was used.
- Tea and sugar caddies imported from England were soon subject to imitation by the master craftsmen of Morocco, and in the Sahara women started to use their creative skills to make leather bags in which to keep the tea-making utensils and also the tea itself and the accompanying sugar. They wanted to protect this most precious commodity from insects, light and odours whilst they travelled.
- Moroccans liked the idea of making tea in a teapot so much that they started to develop the concept and so was born the Moroccan teapot we see today. The porcelain cups were, however, not so popular, and glasses became the vessel of choice. Cups were reserved strictly for coffee.
- In 1789, it was the notables (business people) who introduced the idea of adding mint to the teapot to give the tea a fresh flavour (Herbs such as absinth, marjoram and verbena are also sometimes added to the pot nowadays). By this time, tea had become one of the most important items being imported into the country via the caravan trade routes – along with cows, rams and chickens and also ground flour! It would typically take 60-70 days for the cargo to be transported from Mogador (now Essaouira) to Timbuktu!
- Tea is now considered not only a refreshing drink, but it is also a symbol of hospitality amongst all social classes. It is always on offer in Morocco, in private houses, in cafés, in shops when bartering over an item, also in riads and hotels upon a guest’s arrival. No private or public occasion is complete with the tea ceremony.
As the ritual of making tea became more ingrained into Moroccan society, rituals have developed which necessitate the use of several utensils in the ceremony.
- Firstly, the brass tea tray or assinia, which is mainly produced in Fez and is described by Oskar Lenz in 1789 as “made of polished and shiny brass, covered with carved arabesques, legends and various decorations”. The tray is used as a means of presenting the porcelain cups or glasses in an elaborate manner.
- The teapot originally presented by Queen Anne has been redesigned and become more ornate as times and lifestyles have changed.
- The kettle, which had previously been used as a portable bowl for handwashing before and after meals and for ablutions, has now gained a new role in the ritual of tea-making. It is used on the open fire to boil hot water for the tea or used in conjunction with a brazier for the same purpose. It is needed as the teapot is usually only placed on the fire once within the ceremony, so additional water for the pot must be heated in some way.
- Tea glasses have been introduced and have become a symbol of social status – plain or ornate, finely decorated or coloured. Some glasses are even enriched with gold.
- Silver sugar caddies also adorn the tray, containing large chunks of sugar which have been hacked off the sugar loaf using an ornate copper sugar hammer. After all, tea is not tea in Morocco without the addition of copious amounts of sugar.
Once the utensils are brought into the salon and set down before the guests, the ritual of tea-making can commence…