Tea is becoming incredibly popular in Italy today. Not least because you are almost always guaranteed somewhere to sit down and rest in a tea shop. Envy Italy reports on Italy’s tea revolution.
It was two colonial British ladies who decided that what Rome was missing was a tea shop and so introduced tea to the Italians. Isabel Cargill and Anna Maria Babington opened Babington’s Tea Rooms, Italy’s first tea shop, at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna, in 1893. Prior to its opening, tea in Italy could only be got from a chemist, as tea was only drank as a cure for flu – raffreddore.
The iconic orange-fronted tea rooms are close to the Casina Rossa, commonly referred to as Keats and Shelley House. The poets reportedly patronised the tea rooms.
Although Italians haven’t reached the “Prendiamo un cuppa?” stage yet, coffee grinders, roasters and baristas are being pressurised by tea makers, tea tasters and artisan tea masters. “Arabica” and “Robusta” coffee beans are facing stiff competition from locally sourced leaves, flowers and herbs.
Florence-based La Via del Tè, founded in 1961 by Alfredo Carrai who studied tea rituals and production in China and India, is leading the new Italian tea revolution.
Now over 80, Alfredo explains how his passion for tea began, “One day I tasted Chinese tea in a market in Livorno. My fascination began. I wanted to open up tea to Italians. Tea is the scent of ancient history. The voyage of Ulysses.”
Carrai worked briefly for Lyons, the Irish tea production company. His “blends with a Mediterranean twist” are now exported to 30 countries.
“Tea is a daily pleasure and every cup is a new experience. We have over 120 flavours and sell over 250 tea kinds. Our Earl Grey Imperiale uses the best bergamot oil from Calabria. Our collections are available in top-bracket hotels and resorts, gourmet food shops and delicatessens, starred restaurants and department stores, both in Italy and abroad. We produce 250,000 kilos of tea every year, of which 150,000 is blended in-house in Florence.”
La Via del Tè is a family business with Alfredo’s wife, Lalla, and their five children (Leonardo, Paolo, Giulia, Valentino, Anna and Regina) all involved as well as the third generation, represented by Amerigo and Maddalena.
Anna, who studied botany and pharmaceutical chemistry, is the tea blender. In 2000, she created Romeo e Giulietta – a green tea enriched with papaya, strawberry pieces and red rose petals.
The first and flagship La Via del Tè store opened in 1997 in via San Spirito, in Palazzo Frescobaldi. The company now boasts four other tea shops – in Turin’s Via Carlo Alberto, Rome’s Piazza Fiume and two others in Florence – in Piazza Ghiberti and Via della Condotta.
As well as tisanes and infusions, they all sell ices teas, tea ice cream, tea cocktails and teaware – everything made with “the love of details peculiar to the Florentine tradition of craftsmanship”.
“La Via del Tè redefines tea as a contemporary experience,” says Regina. “We created Filtrofoglia Colonial, a cotton handsewn tea pouch, available in 20 different flavours, with a special attention to the range of caffeine-free infusions and herbal teas.
“I grew up with tea. My mother’s special tea was Chinese black tea with fresh peach slices. As Italians, we have a natural sensibility for good drinks!
“Our new Firenze Collection includes Leggenda di Boboli,” explains Anna. “According to legend, Cosimo I de’ Medici – the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, erected the Boboli Gardens behind Palazzo Pitti for his much beloved wife Eleonora. In the park grew the Bizzarrìa, a cross between citron and orange whose fragrance we have recreated for this citrusy black tea blend.
“Our Santa Maria del Fiore with ripe grapes and red fruits is a tribute to the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral of the city.
The Il Segreto dei Medici blend honours the hidden passage connecting Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti, passing over the river Arno, which was jealously guarded for centuries by the Medici family, as well as their secret recipe of chocolate with jasmine flowers.”
Their Il Mistero della Venere tea is dedicated to Sandro Botticelli’s model in the painting The Birth of Venus – Simonetta Cattaneo. The blend is scented with figs and almonds which were popular fruits during the Renaissance.
Every tea tells a story, recalling history. “Our ‘Ninna Nanna’ (an Italian lullaby) is our most popular herbal tea blends, a sweet mixture for natural relaxation. Apple, chamomile, rose hips, vervain, blackcurrant, orange flowers, lime and cornflower.”
Explains Regina, “Florence is the city of flowers. So, you should be drinking its flowers. And drinking its tea. Rather than so much coffee!”