When traveling in the eastern Black Sea region, fifty shades of green will be too little to count. The landscape is lush with vegetation where one never sees bare soil — partly due to the wild-growing plants and highly due to the tea plants carpeting every possible patch of land. Tea seems to be the natural flora of the region. One cannot imagine the land without the tea plantation. Interestingly, the history of tea is rather new both in Turkey and in the region. Now ubiquitous in every corner of the country, served and savored at every moment, tea is definitely the most favored hot beverage of Turkish people. It is classless and enjoyed equally by all — one can see a well-tattered teapot brewing in a corner of the field, it is served readily in tulip-shaped glasses in ferries and every single tourist is offered a glass of tea in carpet shops. Turkish people never fail to seize the moment to find an opportunity to enjoy a glass of tea. It is always readily available.
Within this picture, it is very hard to imagine Turkish people without tulip tea glasses and the hills of Rize without the tea plant. Rize province is surely the epicenter of tea cultivation in Turkey. It’s where the tea plant found its ideal habitat, and the first tea factory was established in 1946. The first attempt at tea growing in Turkey goes back to late Ottoman times. During the Ottoman era, coffee used to be the hot beverage of choice. Tea in the Ottoman period was almost non-existent; there is not much record of tea in our history. For the first time in the 12th century, the famous Sufi poet Ahmed Yesevi recorded tea as a drink that is good for health. When we come to the Ottoman times, the first mention of tea appears in the travel book of the famous traveler Evliya Çelebi. Evliya mentions tea only twice in his narratives. He drew attention to the fact that there was a tea trade in Istanbul in 1631 and mentioned a tea offering in Bitlis only once during his travels at a banquet given by the Kurdish Bey of Bitlis in honor of Melek Ahmet Pasha, noting that tea was among countless drinks served to guests and that he has tasted it for the first time.
The Ottoman historian Soraya Faroqhi says that tea was only found in the eastern regions that shared connections with Azeri, Iranian and Russian cultures and which had trade links with these regions. Tea in Istanbul was only seen since the 19th century when it became an imported item, especially due to the 1838 Balta Port Agreement signed with England that lowered the customs duties and opened Ottoman lands to British trade. Tea drinking was initiating with baby steps, but obviously, there was a long way to go. For instance, English travel writer Julia Pardoe, who wrote about her voyage in the Ottoman lands, observed that Turks did not know much about tea. While commenting about the tea offered to them during her visits to Istanbul and Bursa in 1836, Pardoe said that it was too watery and the way it was served was a bit clumsy as if people had no clue on how it should be served.
The fate of tea cultivation changed with the establishment of the Turkish Republic. One of the first laws that passed from the parliament was on the introduction of tea cultivation. The motive was to become a totally self-sustained country, being able to produce every food and drink item locally in order to be economically independent. Coffee could not be grown within the new shrunk borders of the Turkish Republic, so the country needed a new habitual beverage. Dated 1924 and numbered 407, the new law was about the cultivation of filberts (hazelnuts), oranges, lemons, tangerines and tea in the province of Rize and Borçka district. Now the way for tea agriculture was officially open. Zihni Derin, appointed as the tea organizer of the Agriculture Ministry in 1938, examined the tea gardens established by the Russians in Batumi, now Georgia, and its surroundings and carried the experience from there to Rize. His biggest supporter was Asım Zihnioğlu, who was appointed to the Rize Tea and Nursery Organization in 1938. Zihnioğlu was sent to different countries, such as India and Sri Lanka, to observe tea plantations in the following years. In 1940, the Tea Law was enacted. Zihnioğlu took part in the establishment of the first tea factory, which was established in 1946 with the consultancy of two foreign experts. The tea consumption tripled in the following three years. By the 1950s and 1960s, tea became synonymous with the Eastern Black Sea region. Since then, Turkish people became tea addicts. I am sure in the new future, Rize initiatives will introduce new variations of tea apart from the usual black tea, and we will soon be talking about 50 tastes of tea in Rize.
Fork of the Week: When in Rize, one wonders how Rize people did not find ways of utilizing tea leaves in the kitchen. One of the most popular greens of Rize cuisine is “kara lahana,” which can be translated as “black cabbage,” a Brassica family flat green leaf cabbage similar to “Cavolo Nero” of Italy. It is used in soups with corn kernels or stuffed with minced meat and rice filling. Experts in Rize Tea Research and Application Center in Çaymer are trying to find ways to create edible options for tea leaves, such as slightly bruised and steeped to be used in salads. We were offered to taste a few by the director Selçuk Azmer, as a new possible use of tea. Considering the high adaptation capacity of Rize people, I will not be surprised a bit to see the locals nibbling fermented pickled tea leaves, pretty much like “laphet” in Myanmar, where it is a must-serve item of hospitality. As once a new crop, totally alien to the land, the tea plant became a feature of Rize landscape, and tea drinking became a habitual habit of Turkish people. I can foresee Rize “laphet” becoming an addictive snack, embedded naturally in local cuisine and practically pickles almost anything.
The good news is that Gökmen Sözen, the foremost organizer of gastronomy-focused organizations in Turkey, has recently initiated the first edition of GastroRize, in order to bring the gastronomy circles to find out about culinary values of the province of Rize and to introduce its products to a wider group of chefs, hospitality sector, food writers and journalists. Mayor Rahmi Metin is the driving force behind the event, who has actively participated in the event, fully supporting the organization. Hopefully, the next edition of GastroRize will go international, and there will be more to offer to the culinary world from this lesser-known part of Turkey.