Teetaimed: The Original Estonian Hot Drink

If you order tea in an Estonian café, you can expect a wide variety of herbal drinks, though not necessarily what we usually call tea. Influenced by Russian culture, the social division between Estonian tea vs herbal infusion drinkers has left traces to this day.

Cup of herbal tea and an assortment of ingredients, herbs, fruits and flowers
Photo: StockFood / Addictive Stock

It is safe to say that in Central Europe, cultural divisions are at least as important as political ones. Take alcohol: the beer, wine, and vodka regions of Europe remain a strong stereotype, though they don’t entirely hold up when challenged by a data-driven approach. Or take the long-term political consequences of using Latin and Cyrillic scripts in some countries.

Teetaimed: beyond boundaries

And there is at least one more boundary one must have in mind when drawing the borders: tea and coffee-drinking cultures. With a strong coffee-drinking Turkish presence in the Balkans, the introduction of coffee culture to Europe through Vienna, and efforts among some nations to bring some West to the Central European culture (via Starbucks), the black drink is holding firm. But, with Russian imperial advocacy and perhaps the communist market preference, there are also firm tea drinkers.

And Estonia is even more fun in this aspect. Not only is it a tea-drinking country, but it also has an internal division. Proper tea, the black brew from Camellia sinensis, or tea plant, is widespread, though somewhat elitist. And then, there’s a tradition of teetaimed, herbal “teas” brewed from local herbs.

Rooted in tea culture, Estonia is on the tea side of té/cha division. That hints that the drink was introduced through Western trade and not by Russians, who call tea “chai.” And in fact, tea appeared in Estonia in the 17th century, far before current Baltic countries came to be a part of the Russian Empire. Being a novelty, it was considered a medicinal herb and sold in pharmacies. But soon, the custom took off, and by the end of the 18th century, it was already popular among the socioeconomic elite. And by the end of the next – all classes started to drink it.

Yet, the class division was strong in Estonia, strengthened by ethnic aspects – as the local elite was of German origin, and local folk was turned to peasants. This enforced differences in lifestyle, which boiled down to eating, drinking, and living. The village relied heavily on local food production, including herb foraging on local pastures. Ethnobotanists note that over 500 herbs were in use among people from the late 19th century onward.

Make sure it’s a tea

Hence, if you talk about tea to an Estonian, expect term confusion, as they could be thinking about any herbal brew available and not specifically tea plant brew (*though the term rohutee is used if someone cares about avoiding confusion). And the category of those tea-herbs, known in Estonia as teetaimed, is vast, from chamomile to cherry leaves, to caraway, to tilia.

This usage of herbs is not unique to Estonia, but then again, it’s not that popular, as Russian herbals don’t mention it. Only proper tea was present in Russia, and being very expensive, it remained an aristocratic drink. As this also extends to Estonia, influenced by Russian presence in 19 century, the distinction between proper tea (highbrow) and herbal teetaimed (lowbrow) was affirmed.

Tea drinking in Estonia is holding strong. Currently, young people with little herbal knowledge are looking to restore the teetaimed tradition. And tea culture proliferates, with Samovar Museum in Varnja and a recent temporary exhibition on tea in Varna museum only stating the obvious.

Przemysław Bociąga

is a Polish journalist and essayist based in Warsaw. An anthropologist and art historian by education, he specializes in combining cultural phenomena with compelling narrative. He has authored and co-authored several books covering lifestyle and history. The most recent of them is “Impeccable. The biography of masculine image”. He has contributed to many leading magazines, both in print and online, and teaches cultural anthropology to college students.

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