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Welsh tea, only in Patagonia

One of the unique places in the world for tea is Gaiman, Argentina. This is the center of a community in the Chabut region, descended from a ship of Welsh emigrants. They established a colony in Patagonia in 1865, at the invitation of the Argentine Republic anxious to populate its wide and empty spaces. Wales is the smallest country in Great Britain.

The colony, Y Wladychfa Gymreig, is seven thousand miles away from Cardiff and now has 50,000 Argentinians of Welsh descent, with around 5,000 Welsh native language speakers. Welsh gaucho cowboys were a noted curiosity for decades.

Welsh gauchos at work, 1890.

Welsh gauchos at work, 1890.

The city of Gaiman has been described as a green oasis in an arid desert steppe. It has maintained its Welsh identity and built on it, with growing tourist links to the old country. Its heritage of chapels and music have been boosted by a charming though largely fake tea culture that gets a lot of coverage internationally and gives Wales a unique place in the history of “English” tea, a misnomer.

Today, casas de te gales (Gales is the Spanish translation for Wales, with the association of Gaelic and Gauls) compete to offer traditional Welsh bara brith – “speckled” cake bread – and black tea, with rivalry between the “authentic” tea houses of Welsh ancestry and the upstart Tŷ Te Caerdydd, founded by a Spanish-Polish family, in 1994, which has a special advantage. In 1995, Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, spent a few hours in Gaiman on a Royal Visit and dined in the tea house. This was the very day after she had publicly admitted her extramarital affairs on TV and doubts that her husband, Prince Charles, was qualified to become King. She later died in a car crash in Paris and has been near venerated since.

Her passing through has sustained the tourist pull. Today, her unwashed tea cup is exhibited, still with its lipstick stain, in the tea house. Her visit is central to today’s marketing, as is the claim to “ethno-linguistic supremacy” of the older established tea houses through their certified plaque announcing their “circulo…de descendientes de gales.”

The only catch in all this is that Wales has never had its own tradition of tea. The Princess of Wales was thoroughbred English and the title of Prince of Wales is always granted to the decidedly non-Welsh heir to the throne, currently Prince Charles. Lady Di was a Spencer, and her ancestors included Churchill and the Duke of Marlboro, Britain’s greatest general. The Welsh cake does have a loose historical tradition, largely undocumented. It seems to have been basically a way of using leftover bread to make a flavored scone/biscuit/cake.

The Patagonia cake version comes with a few standard pitches of authentic recipes being passed down through generations, and even being aged in French oak casks. It mostly seems to be Argentinian “black” cake – torta negra. The tea is dark, with plenty of   milk and sugar. And Argentina machine-mowed.

Regardless of historicity, the Gaiman tea culture is striking and real. It has helped crystallize a Patagonian Welsh identity that inevitably faded as the population lost its charter for self-administration in the late 1950s and new generations were Argentinians not immigrants. It stimulated closer ties with Wales and a small but growing tourist trade, mainly from cruise ships docking off the nearby coast, in an area of whales, penguins and bleak vistas. The many reviews praise the charm of the town, largely think the tea houses are overpriced and stress that there’s nothing else to see. But they like it.

Wales is the smallest country in Great Britain, with a population of three million, under a third that of the capital city of London. Its history was one of long and harsh economic exploitation by absentee owners of the iron works and coal mines. The countervailing rebellions, strikes, resistance to martial law, and courage of the new-formed militant labor unions led to the creation of Britain’s Labour Party, still the alternative to the Conservatives. The late 1800s are still termed The Years of Stress and the Great Strike of the 1920s was a pivot point in the politics of Britain. Winston Churchill notoriously ordered troops to fire on strikers.

Beside this stress and conflict was a culture of communitarian rather than ideological religion built around local chapels. The cliché of Wales as “The land of song” reflects its wonderful tradition of choirs, chapel brass bands, harps and fiddles, folk music and famous singers embodied in the large musical galas called Eisteddfod. The leaders of the colony movement saw remote Patagonia as a place where they could transplant and protect their religion and community life. Gaiman was built around its chapels.

In many ways, the preservation of Welsh identity has always been centered on its unique language of strung together vowel-less consonants, countering a century of near suppression in schools and public society by English officials. Today, there are over half a million Welsh speakers and it is restored as an official national language.

The language is embodied in the famous railway station sign for the village of – well, try pronouncing it yourself.

llanfair

“English” tea is really United Kingdom tea and even British Isles tea. The UK is the island of Great Britain – England, Scotland and Wales – plus Northern Ireland. (That’s the political unit. It’s not so united post-Brexit.) The British Isles include Eire, the Republic of Ireland, which is independent and part of the Euro currency zone.

They all have played different roles in the evolution of tea. The Scots shaped its production. The English sold it. The Irish drank it. That left Wales, the smallest country, with no distinctive role within the mainstream.

Basically, the Scots created and grew the “English” global tea industry, starting with Robert Fortune, who enabled the Indian tea growing that broke open China’s market control. The Jackson brothers invented the Britannia rolling machines which rescued the embryonic Assam industry, with many still in use today. Robert Bruce built the Ceylon tea economy. The Scottish Thomas Lipton was to tea what Sam Walton has been to retailing. English Breakfast was an Edinburgh innovation.

The English, as contrasted to British, contributions were the democratization and organization of tea importing, blending and retailing. Thomas Twining, the Tetleys and John Horniman are standout names here. The East India Company operated as both the largest firm in the world, with its own military, and the driver of colonial exploitation of colonies and workers. It was the direct cause of the Boston Tea Party. It was the power behind the tea kettle.

The Irish are more “English” than the English in teas. They are generally rated as the third largest per capita consumer of tea, behind Turkey and Morocco, forty percent higher than the rest of the UK. They are distinctive in the strength of their teas – the old line is that you should be able to let a spoon stand upright in it.

Its policy of neutrality in World War II cut it off from the British-run sources of tea and shifted its blenders and merchants to seek out African leaf. Barry’s and Lyon’s tea are its best-known and very dominant brands, the only ones where you will see Rwanda listed as an ingredient. It is commonplace to dismiss Indian Darjeeling and Assam teas as “too light” for the Irish consumer, who still adds milk and then more milk; Ireland is a dairy country.

And Wales invented a tea culture in a nation and on a continent where tea has very little market. That’s reminiscent of the American coffee house chain that was based on Italian traditions and employs baristas to serve ventes and trentas that it sells even in the 500 stores a year it is opening in China.

But Italy has for the more than 30 years of the firm’s existence been Starbucks-free. Only in 2016 has Starbucks announced plans to enter the Italian market, “with humility.” It may have been built on the Milanese tradition but it was its own cultural invention. It just didn’t fit into how Italians view, shop for and drink their coffee.

That doesn’t make Starbucks’ Italianate flourishes as fake but shows how powerful a “heritage” can emerge from history, memory, association, habits, innovation and perhaps just being right for the times and place. Welsh tea is unlikely to grow beyond its unique combination of these and no one is going to be ordering a slab of bara brith to go with their unnamed “té” in the cities of Asia and Europe. But it’s still a very real heritage.

 

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