Brewing across North Africa: Rituals of coffee and tea

Via Google Images

Coffee and tea are a commodity consumed across cultures, often playing a mediating role in social interactions. Throughout the travel narratives we have discussed on this blog, coffee and tea make frequent appearances. This blog post will examine how our 19th century European friends encountered coffee and tea as they adventured through Morocco and Egypt.

Preparation and presentation

Moroccan tea via Flickr

In both the Moroccan travel narratives of Frances Macnab and Philip Trotter, tea plays a role in everyday interactions with the locals. Either referred to as Moroccan or Moorish tea, it is formally made by placing the green leaves into a teapot and pouring a small amount of hot water over them. The hot water is intended to clean the leaves and is immediately thrown away. Large lumps of sugar are then added and more hot water is poured to start the brew. Multiple cups will be drunk from the same pot, causing the aroma and flavour to change with every serving. On one occasion, Macnab took it upon herself to make the Moorish tea for the group. In response, her companions sat back, opting to pass on drinking her concoction. This brief episode suggests that the process of brewing tea was a respected skill that could not be attempted by just anyone.

From Emmeline Lott’s experience as governess to the viceroy, she rarely encounters coffee or tea, except on one memorable occasion, when she makes a social call to a rather glamorous widow. Everything in Lott’s description speaks of elegance and luxury – the widow’s silk robes, the luscious divan she lounges on, her alabaster-like neck and the ostrich feathers that frame her face. When the coffee arrives, it fits this display perfectly: “[coffee] was handed to us in elegant small zarfs or transparent Japan china, egg-shaped, footless cups, inlaid with diamonds and other precious stones” (114). In this case, coffee provides another opportunity for the widow to demonstrate her wealth, and leaves the reader curious as to the wonders of a coffee worth serving in cups with precious stones.

coffee shop
A modern day coffee shop in Cairo via Flickr

Interestingly, coffee shops were almost as ubiquitous in 19th century Egypt as they are today. C.B Kunzinger notes that coffee was a “bitter, muddy beverage”, and that to ask for a coffee with sugar was a source of great excitement for the cafe’s proprietor. He would have to send an employee to the market solely to buy the sugar requested by his patron. This is similar to Glorvina Fort’s experience with a tea service at the Rock of Gilbraltar. Fort notes that “we are to find, and scald our own tea, also the sugar and cakes, or crackers to eat with it” (29). The fact that both Kunzinger and Fort needed to provide the accompaniments for their coffee or tea demonstrates a difference in customs and expectations between these European travelers and their North African hosts.


Social interaction

From what we know of Morocco in the 19th century, tea played a role in the homes of the locals as a mediator between guest and host. On Trotter’s first encounter with Moroccan tea, his host drank first to guarantee that the tea was not poisoned. Out of respect for the host, guests were expected to accept a cup of the sugary concoction, which was unfortunate for Trotter, as his palate was not fond of the sweet drink. Within one sitting, three or more cups of tea might be drunk, giving time for host and guest to assess one another, and also acting as a symbolic gesture of respect for one’s host. 

english coffee
Cultures meet – North African customs did not always meet European expectations, via Google Images

Stanley Lane-Poole’s description of a Cairo market street provides an interesting example of how coffee is used as part of a social (and monetary) transaction. He explains that each “dealer has to be bargained with, and generally smoked with, if not coffeed with” (4) before you are able to make your purchase. Usually a shop will trade in one specific commodity, requiring a tour of multiple outlets to find everything on your shopping list. In this situation, coffee accompanies a potentially tense or awkward social interaction; the act of bargaining between customer and trader is made less intense by the mutual enjoyment of a cup of coffee. In contrast to Lane-Poole’s European customs, Egyptian-style shopping seems a lengthy process to go through each time you wish to make a purchase.
As Lane-Poole continues his shopping expedition, he encounters a shopkeeper who is out of the requested item, and, in response, the trader quickly “leave[s] [Lane-Poole] with a cigarette and a cup of coffee, or perhaps a Persian tea in a tumbler, while he goes to find the desideratum among the wares of his colleagues round about” (6). Here, not only is coffee being used to make bargaining a more cordial affair, but also as a tool for securing the sale. The fact the shopkeeper is able to rely on his neighbouring salesmen to provide the item he is missing speaks to a level of community and support among the traders. Perhaps the shopkeeper promised his colleague a coffee in exchange for his help with the transaction.

coffee (32)
A coffee pot and cups from Lane-Poole’s book (32)

This blog post was written collaboratively by Rose, Meredith, and Logan. Read more about the authors here.


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