Delightful Drink or Powerful Poison: A History of Tea in Poland
small, Delightful Drink or Powerful Poison: A History of Tea in Poland, ‘Tańczący Jastrząb’ (Dancing Hawk), directed by Grzegorz Królikiewicz, 1977, photo: Troszczyński / National Film Archive, fototeka.fn.org.pl, 1.jpg
At the end of the 18th century, Polish Enlightenment writers still considered tea to be as suspicious as the blood of bovine animals, frogs, snakes or snails. Stanisław Trembecki, a poet and the chamberlain of Poland’s last king, even argued that thanks to a diet he devised which prohibited tea, one could live until 140! Let’s take a look back at the history of tea in Poland.
A cure or a cause?
The earliest mentions of tea in Poland date back to the 17th century. King Jan Kazimierz is said to have sought advice from his French wife, Marie Louise, on brewing and drinking tea. This exotic beverage was also mentioned by the poet Wespazjan Kochowski in his work. At the beginning of the 18th century, the stimulating qualities of tea were pointed out in various almanacs: ‘those drinking tea may stay awake for several days and nights’.
Also, the medicinal properties of the ‘Thee herb’ (the Polish word for tea, herbata, comes from the Latin word herba meaning herb) were noticed. Tea was supposed to heal ‘a weak stomach’, ‘protect against lethargy’ and prevent gout; it was also believed to ‘clear one’s head, calm one down, feed one’s stomach, protect against and cure gallstones, and also reduce headaches, relieve nausea, combat indolence, coagulate blood and cure ulcers’.
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Nevertheless, at the end of the 18th century, tea was still considered a little suspicious. Reverend Kazimierz Kluk claimed it was even harmful. In his Dykcjonarz Roślinny (Dictionary of Plants), published in 1786, Kluk described tea as a potent poison: ‘if China had sent us all its poisons, it wouldn’t do us as much harm as its tea [...] frequent drinking of this warm water weakens one’s nerves and digestive system’. Rev. Jędrzej Kitowicz, in his Opis Obyczajów (Description of Customs), was no less critical about this ‘nauseating drink’, arguing that tea ‘causes consumption’ and ‘a cold stomach’.
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‘Filip z Konopi’ (Out of the Blue), directed by Józef Gębski, featuring Barbara Krafftówna, 1981, photo: Kard Film Studio / National Film Archive, fototeka.fn.org.pl
In 1822, in his Rzecz o Herbacie: Czytana na Posiedzeniu Cesarskiego Towarzystwa Lekarskiego w Wilnie dnia 12 Grudnia 1822 Roku (On Tea: An Essay Read at the Meeting of the Imperial Medical Society in Vilnius on 12th December 1822), Jan Fryderyk Wolfgang wrote:
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Tea has only recently come to popular use; earlier, it was considered almost a medicine. It is certain, nevertheless, that in 1754, when the Russian army was passing through Vilnius on its way to Prussia to fight in the Seven Years’ War, there existed numerous public tea houses in that town – like cafés nowadays – where tea was consumed excessively, as evidenced by a living memory of many people. Coffee was almost unknown in Vilnius at the time.
Dancing teas & the samovar
Despite all the doubts, and following the French and English example, Poles slowly started to regard drinking tea and coffee as a sign of good manners. This was in contrast to drinking alcoholic beverages (vodka, for example) – which, during the Saxon era, would frequently be imbibed to start a new day. Not only tea leaves but also special pots for brewing tea were imported to Poland. European tea sets (as well as ones especially for coffee and hot chocolate) appeared much later. But in contrast to coffee, the import of tea didn’t actually increase in the second half of the 18th century.
Compendiums, diaries and brochures at the time were full of advice on how to preserve tea: ‘in order to prevent its loss of flavour, tea should be kept on fresh hay [...] as the smell of hard liquors, spices, oil, soap, smoked or cured meat, suet, fresh meat, tobacco and snuff is harmful for tea, and also laundry odours spoil its flavour and taste’. And what kind of water was best for brewing the aromatic tea leaves? One shouldn’t have used hard water but rather soft water: from the Vistula or another river if possible, or even rainwater.
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‘Różne Herbaty i Herbata Polska’ (Various Teas and Polish Tea), a publication of ‘Polskie Zioła’ (Polish Herbs) magazine, Warsaw, 1935, photo: National Digital Library POLONA (polona.pl)
In Warsaw ‘dancing teas’ were organised – namely dance parties with participants savouring tea. At receptions held at manors, buffets were laid out serving tea and desserts. Reportedly, less affluent families would serve tea instead of champagne at wedding parties.
In Polish territories under Austrian and Prussian rule, tea was brewed in teapots, whereas in the Russian partition, following the Russian tradition brought from Moscow, the samovar was the main player. Jan Biegański, in his pre-WWII brochure entitled Różne Herbaty i Herbata Polska (Various Teas and Polish Tea), noted:
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In Polish households in the Russian partition, the samovar was in general use, and it became an indispensable device in every well-to-do household. Brought into a room and placed hot on the table, the samovar exuded a kind of charm and evoked a blissful mood amongst guests and hosts. The hostess would pour tea with a degree of solemnity and hand cups of tea to the guests; their faces would brighten and the entire company would liven up.
In that part of Poland, tea was imported mostly from China (and so it was called ‘caravan tea’). Biegański writes:
Good quality tea came to Polish lands in the so-called cybiki (special boxes). It was transported by land, via the Chinese-Russian customs house […]. Transported this way, almost all the way through Siberia, tea was delivered to big companies in Moscow which packed it for the needs of trade.
Even though sometimes fraud did occur, as all kinds of herbs were fermented to resemble black tea, tea transported by land was of much better quality than that transported by sea. This was confirmed in a note from the compendium from 1799 entitled Botanika Stosowana, czyli Wiadomości o Właściwościach i Życiu Roślin (Applied Botany or Information About the Properties and Life of Plants): ‘Russian trade brings us Chinese tea by land and such tea is substantially better than tea that that comes in ships’.
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Tea from a samovar; photo: Roman Kotowicz / Forum
Tea parties and the so-called ‘fajfy’
Tea took the lead over coffee in the early 20th century. While the former reigned in households, the latter was usually consumed in cafés. Why was that? Coffee was sold raw, and one had to roast it before brewing, whereas tea was sold ready to use and was easy to make at home. Tea no longer impressed people; it had become common. The samovar was replaced by a kettle or an ordinary pot. ‘A samovar, even if found in affluent households, sadly stands forgotten in a cupboard or worn-out protrudes from a heap of junk’, Biegański wrote. Tea also became accessible for the less well-off, as proved by the fact that in the winter of 1917, more than 40 million cups of tea were served in Warsaw’s teahouses.
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The situation was quite different in the Austrian partition. Because of the trade blockade during World War I, the tea market collapsed: the remaining stocks were being rationed, and owners of tea establishments had to close their businesses down or switch to herbs. The local press was full of tips about what to use as replacement for the popular drink. In 1915, the Municipal Board of the Capital City of Lviv issued a proclamation on woodland strawberry leaves that could be used as ersatz tea for the army; a detailed instruction how such leaves should be dried was included since the import of tea, ‘a drink much desirable, in particular for the soldiers’, was limited. The authorities appealed to the people known for their patriotism, especially to schoolchildren, to collect woodland strawberry leaves for the soldiers.
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‘Zdjęcia Próbne’ (Screen Tests), directed by Agnieszka Holland, 1976; photo: Kard Film Studio / National Film Archive, fototeka.fn.org.pl
Despite all the problems that the young and poor Polish state faced after regaining its independence after 123 years, the Interwar period was an era of tea prosperity – the tea trade was developing, tea shops and teahouses were opening, the market of tea advertisements and packaging was growing. It would be impossible not to mention a new fashionable form of social life, the so-called fajfy, or five o’clocki – as afternoon tea parties were known.
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In Historia Polskiego Smaku (The History of Polish Taste), Maja and Jan Łoziński note that fajfy ‘didn’t require any costly and elaborate preparations from the hosts, yet perfectly filled in the inevitable breaks between subsequent receptions.’ Here’s a sample menu from the As (Ace) weekly magazine published in 1936: ‘Tea, served separately: rum in a little decanter, lemon slices, cream in a jar, and small canapés, savoury cookies and biscuits served on trays or crystal plates’.
Fajfy organised by Warsaw’s high society were so numerous that it was physically impossible to appear at each of them. Tea parties were organised by Stanisław Wojciechowski, the second President of the Republic of Poland, and by Jadwiga Piłsudska, the wife of Marshall Józef Piłsudki. Marshall Piłsudski was famous for his addiction to tea. He had a special weakness for extremely strong tea, and he literally drank it glass after glass. This habit likely originated in his Russian days. And Witkacy himself claimed that tea gave one more ‘inspiration’ in intellectual work and also in drawing - it improved ‘eye/hand coordination’.
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After 1945, tea trade was nationalised. Even though during the several decades under communism tea wasn’t lacking (except for the shortages during the 1980s crisis), its quality was poor. Better quality ‘Western’ products were available, but only for hard currency in Pewex or Baltona shops, or on the black market.
Today, tea is one of Poland’s most beloved beverages. Although coffee shops can now be found on every street corner and every type of drink is available at every store, at every moment, tea still reigns supreme.
Originally written in Polish by Magdalena Kasprzyk–Chevriaux, Oct 2017; translated by MF, Oct 2018