Tea Cultivation in Sicily: from Chinese to Arabs, a Tradition Which Goes Beyond the Centuries
«In 950 AD the island represented the doorway for the innovations which came from the East. During that period, thanks to the friendship between an Arab emir and the Chinese emperor, tea trees reached Sicily».
No doubt talking about tea leads many to think about Asian countries, like China or Japan, as production areas, and to imagine it as an imported beverage. Even though tradition considers China the motherland of Camellia Sinensis (the scientific name for tea tree, editors’ note), Salvo Pellegrino’s studies demonstrate that Sicily is the second land with the oldest tea production. Pellegrino, farmer from Raddusa, explains that in 950 AD our island represented the doorway for the innovations which came from the East. «During that period ‒ tells Salvo ‒ thanks to the friendship between an Arab emir and the Chinese emperor, tea tree reached our island».
FROM TEA TO SILK, CHINESE PLANTS GROW UP BETTER IN SICILY. Tea cultivation, although it is harder and less profitable than others such as the citrus one, continued for many centuries, supported by climatic conditions of the island. «Even in 1600 ‒ Salvo explains ‒ China sent a delegation of scholars in Sicily. These ones lived here for twenty years, trying to understand why some of their plants grew up in our land rather than theirs». Among cultivations, in addition to tea one, there was also the mulberry, essential food for silkworms. «Sicily, indeed, ‒ farmer from Raddusa specifies ‒ was the first silk supplier for European lords, too».
TEA AS FOOD AND MEDICAL PLANT. Until not long ago, tradition wanted that tea has been eaten rather than drank. «Travelers ate it so they did not sleep during the journey. ‒ Pellegrino tells ‒ In that era there was fear for bandit attacks overnight. Thanks to tea trees ‒ he adds ‒ it was possible staying awake for almost five or six nights». In particular, tea leaves were used as medical plants to cure intestinal infections. The beverage that is known nowadays, will be created later. But, until now, a country continues the original tradition: «Myanmar is the only place where tea still be eaten rather than drank. ‒Salvo explains ‒ It is aged in bamboo reeds, leaves are compacted, and tea is ready as soon as reed broke. It is served on the hors d’oeuvre plate. When people in Myanmar invite you to take tea, it is not to drink – he affirms smiling – but to eat. However, in Myanmar streets Indian immigrates sell it as an hot beverage».
ITS DISAPPEARANCE AFTER THE END OF ARAB DOMINATION. After Arabs, French and English came in Sicily. «This signed the end of Sicilian tea plantations ‒ Salvo admits ‒ Because both lost interest in tea tree, leaving its cultivation». Nevertheless, many plants survived in conditions of autonomy. Also Goethe was character of the abandon of tea later: «In 1787 Goethe, visiting the prince of Gravina, was accompanied to visit Etna. While they ascended ‒ Salvo tells ‒ he met English people who had teapots contained their tea. So he reprimanded them: “Why, being in Sicily, do you not try the local tea? Why do you always have to acts like English?” He wrote also a poem about it that Germans studies at classical gymnasium».
It is to highlight how between 1700 and 1800 a Sicilian aristocrat, thanks to his brother who was ambassador in Japan, gained to carry a load of tea seeds in Sicily, with the intent to produce tea tree for selling it to English. But, also this attempt was abolished after Unity of Italy.
There was a turning point, during the fascist era, when Mussolini banned coffee, promoting the diffusion of tea. In fact, in 1929 was created the ATI (Associazione Italiana Tearia ‒ Italian Association of Tea), whose assignment was to manage the imported tea and to sort it from Genoa throughout Italy.
THE REVIVAL IN XXI CENTURY. Nowadays, in Sicily many small farmers have resumed the production of tea trees. Also Salvo Pellegrino, in his “Tea House” in Raddusa, succeeded in making his small plantation. «There are six typical kinds of tea. ‒ He explains ‒ You go from the black tea to the white one, passing by yellow tea, puʼer, oloong, everyone with a different fermentations. However, in my plot of land, we produce green tea, that is less fermented and immediately ready for production». Over the years Pellegrino has experimented and mixed his green tea with a great variety of products, each of them offered by our land. You go from tangerin to ʻverdelloʼ lemon of Giarre, passing by pistachio of Bronte and the homemade ginger that Pellegrino produces in the same plot of land. «Possibilities are endless ‒ the farmer explains ‒ just let your imagination run riot».
Translated to English by Daniela Marsala