3 Favorite Teas of the First Ladies

First Ladies of the US and Russia

Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev in 1987

Tea and politics in the United States have gone hand-in-hand since the founding of our country. Tea has influenced many a decision maker and brought together disparate minds over important topics. So it is fun to highlight some of the more frequently served types of tea in the White House. Below are just a few of the favorites of former First Ladies.

Abigail Adams – Abigail Adams served many different teas at the White House. Most formal occasions required a black tea, which during that time in America would have been black tea from the Fujian province in China. Remember that this is shortly after the American Revolution and trade with England and the British East India Company was not in the picture. So there would have been almost no tea from India at this time. Abigail took it upon herself to blend the black tea with rose petals to make a softer tea that she would serve for closest friends and family.

Nancy Reagan – The repeated meetings between President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, that would ultimately lead to the fall of the Berlin wall in Germany and communism in Russia, required Nancy Reagan to entertain Raisa Gorbachev. This was done over a series of teas. During the one hosted by Mrs. Reagan, she offered a decaffeinated almond tea to Ms. Gorbachev, who seemed to enjoy it. Quite a bit was written by Mrs. Reagan about how uncomfortable these teas where in her memoir. As the conversations whether rather impersonal, with Mrs. Gorbachev talking about communism (she was a political science lecturer at many of the Russian universities) while Mrs. Reagan tried to steer the conversation toward talking about their children. Much was written in the press on the importance of these teas to international relations even though they were rather uncomfortable for Mrs. Reagan. At least she had her favorite tea with her during those trying meetings.

Jacqueline Kennedy – Another First Lady who entertained with many afternoon teas, Mrs. Kennedy used those affairs to help redefine the role of the First Lady in national politics. Now, much like Abigail Adams, those afternoon teas where formal affairs requiring a more formal tea. So a traditional black tea, this time Indian tea, as trade with China had not resumed, was usually served. It isn’t until she is away from the limelight that you learn her favorite tea was actually a black iced tea blended with mint, orange juice, and lime juice. She usually enjoyed this during the summer months while reading.

These are just a few of the First Ladies, so many more drank tea routinely, it is just rather difficult to get to the type of tea they liked. It should be noted that tea has had a long role at the White House and continues to be a way to connect with visiting dignitaries from all over the world.

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Teas for the Chinese New Year Celebrations

Chinese LanternsThe Chinese New Year is the largest celebration in China. Lasting 15 days, this holiday is a chance for families and friends to come together and celebrate the new year. Gifts are exchanged and a lot of food is eaten. In finding the right New Year gift, many Chinese choose food items or teas that focus on health and long life. Since the Chinese see all teas being healthy and helping to aid in a long life, it seems hard to figure out how to narrow the field. This holiday is considered the biggest in China and one of the few where gifts are exchanged, so the quality of the tea is going to play a big roll in what is chosen as a gift. Also, with the new year during the dormant period for tea plants, much of the available tea in China will be fall and winter harvest oolongs and aged puerh. So with this in mind, here are 3 oolongs that would would be considered an appropriate to both give and serve as part of the Chinese New Year .

Ti Kuan Yin – This beautiful oolong from Anxi in Fuijan province of China carries the name of Iron Goddess of Mercy. Kuan Yin, or Guanyin, gave guidance in a dream to a local farmer in Anxi on how to care for the tea plant and make this balled oolong. This brought prosperity to the farmer and the village. So this oolong is not only associated with health, but with prosperity. So it covers two of the biggest Chinese beliefs around the new year making it a perfect candidate for giving and serving.

Fenghuang Dancong – This Phoenix Mountain oolong from Guangdong province is plucked from tea plants that are allowed to grow wild in gardens of other plants. These plants are older and larger than the plants kept in a traditional garden. The flavor profile is both sweet and vegetal. These oolongs have been around for centuries and are considered one of the best lighter oolongs from China. Tea from old tea plants is always valued in China and shows a level of care from the giver of the tea.

Wen Shan Bao Zhong – This high elevation oolong from Taiwan (keep in mind China does not recognize Taiwan as a separate country), is also a fall harvest oolong and is prized on the mainly for its light creamy flavor. Taiwan oolongs are considered the best quality, even by mainland Chinese. So this would be both an exotic and highly prized gift.

Regardless of which one you choose, all of these oolongs are worthy of any holiday.

 

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Masters of Puerh: the Dai People of Yunnan

Tea processing by the Dai of Yunnan China

Processing of Tea Leaves in Preparation of Raw Tea

Tea is not just a beverage, but a piece of history and a reflection of its maker. The Dai people are the makers of Puerh. This ethnic minority has lived in the southwest region of the Yunnan province since the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E-220 C.E.). They migrated even further south into Laos and Thailand during the wars of the Song Dynasty (960C.E.-1279C.E.)

Dai Culture

The term Dai is used by the Chinese government to group in several minorities that have similar religious beliefs and dialects. There are seven documented different dialects for the Dai, based around where they lived. The rugged terrain of Yunnan made it hard, even now, to connect the various villages in the province so different dialects and beliefs developed based around whether you lived in the valley near the river of in the mountains. What stays similar throughout the region was their belief in Buddism, which is reflected in the vast number of temples through out Yunnan and the celebrated holidays. The Dai dress colorfully, mirroring the colors in the temples. They also have unique poetry, song and dance that is sometimes on display for the local tourists.

Dai Food and Drink

Their cuisine cares a wide variety of flavors, most notably spicy and bitter. Bamboo shoots are routinely included with meals, as well as pickled vegetables along with rice and meat. Many westerners would consider the cuisine to be simple, but its key is freshness. You can generally identify everything on the plate. Even the fish out the river are always served whole and where most likely caught that morning. Yunnan is home to wide variety of insects that are actually eaten as a local delicacy. You can find fried and spiced wasp larva, grasshoppers, cicadas, and chestnut bugs at the local restaurants and dinner tables.

Cloud and mist shrouded tea trees of Yunnan Province

Home of the Dai people of Yunnan, China with ancient tea trees for which small batch puerh is produced.

The tea is not scented in this region, it is valued for its size and vegetal flavor. The larger the leaf, the better in the eyes of the Dai. The tea plants are grown both trimmed and untrimmed. A tea plant over 100 years old is allowed to grow wild, and is plucked using a ladder. These ancient trees are treated with the utmost care, with many of them being well over 300 years old. Fertilizer comes from the local cows and chickens. Pesticides are not used because those insects in the tea plants may well become a side dish at dinner.

These ancient tea trees are a piece of history that the Dai consider as a gift given to them to share with others. So the next time you enjoy a cup of Puerh or Yunnan Sunrise, think of the Dai and the care they put into these trees and your favorite cup of tea.

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Darjeeling Tea Shortage of 2017 and Gorkha Struggle

Are you a lover of Darjeeling tea? Or perhaps just curious about the region? Unfortunately, it appears that the struggle for recognition by the Ghorkha has led to the harvest of a tiny fraction of the expected tea crop in Darjeeling. In fact, indications are that Darjeeling tea on auction in Kolkata is way way down and trending toward zero with upcoming auctions. The relatively short, yet ultimately complex history of the region set the stage for a months long uprising triggered by a ruling about language taught in schools.

Darjeeling, India

Darjeeling is in the Northeast of India surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh (Public Domain)

The Ghorkha and Ghorkhaland Region

If you haven’t taken a close look at a map of India and West Bengal recently, now is a great time to do so. West Bengal is an oddly shaped state in Eastern India. Almost serpent like in shape, West Bengal extends from the Bay of Bengal in the south up to the high mountains between Nepal and Bhutan. It then extends east, sandwiched between Bhutan and Bangladesh. India extends further to the east into Assam where the country opens up, yet Darjeeling itself is seemingly squished from all sides with a greater geographic touch to neighboring countries than to India.

Important Darjeeling Facts:

  • Darjeeling, once part of Nepal, was ceded to the British and East India Company in 1815 in the Treaty of Sugauli.
  • Modern India was created in 1947 when it became independent from Great Britain. It’s only 70 years old!
  • Bengal was separated along religious lines into West Bengal (India) and East Bengal (Pakistan) during Indian independence.
  • Bangladesh, formerly East Bengal, succeeded from Pakistan in 1971.

The Ghorkha are Indian citizens of Nepali descent. They speak a different language and have different customs from those to the south, the majority Bengali Indian population. They have been advocating since 1907 – 40 years before India’s independence – for recognition and their own independent state. The desire for more autonomy, and recognition as different from Bengali’s of the south, has contributed to significant friction that has occasionally spilled over to violence since that time. This desire for its own state led to the creation of the push for Ghorkhaland to include the northern most portions of West Bengal – a region from Darjeeling east to the border with Assam.

Within the Gorkhaland region you will find that the population actually includes Nepali (which is actually 15 different ethnic groups), Lepcha (some of the earliest settlers), Bhutia (people migrating from Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet), Tibetan (refugees from Tibet during the Sino-Indian War of 1961), Bengali (settlers and migrants from South Bengal and refugees from Bangladesh), and many others not otherwise classified1.

During the past 100+ year desire for recognition and its own state, the Gorkha have come together and formed various political parties and violence has flared from time to time, notably in the 1980’s and again in 2013. This has led to various concessions from West Bengal with the current major political party, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) advocating for recognition and the Gorkha Territorial Administration, providing semi-autonomous self-governing in the region.

The Spark for 2017 Turmoil

In May 2017, the West Bengal government of Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee issued a ruling that Bengali must be taught in all schools in West Bengal through the 10th grade. In a region that has struggled for over 100 years for recognition, in an area more closely aligned to Nepal than to Bengal, this was the spark needed to revive the push for an independent Gorkhaland state.

Immediately after the announcement from the West Bengal government the GJM and other related parties renewed the long simmering push for an independent state with Darjeeling as the epicenter for protests. On June 12th, the GJM called for an indefinite bandh – a Hindi word for general strike – while at the same time a group of 26 trade unions lent support by calling for a strike by tea workers as well.  Many people in the region took to the street to protest causing disruptions in local government services and transportation, making it difficult for tourists and residents of boarding schools of the region to leave. In response, the West Bengal government sent in police and military to try and quell the unrest. To date at least three people have died and multiple buildings and vehicles have been burned.

As August 2017 approaches the region continues to protest with tea production and tourism, two of the largest industries of Darjeeling and the greater Gorkhaland area, mostly at a standstill. The GJM has refused talks with the West Bengal Government, instead pushing for talks at a national level to push for the creation of their state. And, if the West Bengal Government is to be believed the GJM may now be bringing in outside help to train protesters for a long drawn out struggle2.

Summing Up

The season for 2nd Flush Darjeeling is now past, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Narendra Modi thus far has not engaged in the discussion for a Gorkhaland state, and the GJM remains unwilling to work with the West Bengal Government. So the 2017 Darjeeling crop is a bust and early indications aren’t looking good for a resolution anytime soon potentially threatening the 2018 Darjeeling crop as well.

 

1) GTA Profile, Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, http://www.gta-darjeeling.org/node/285

2) GJM Preparing for Underground Armed Movement with Maoists, CNN News 18, http://www.news18.com/news/india/gjm-preparing-for-underground-armed-movement-with-maoists-1470011.html

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5 Facts About Ceylon Tea

Ceylon tea plucked on the island nation of Sri Lanka

Plucking Tea in Sri Lanka

With the Ceylon tea industry celebrating 150 years this week, we thought we would highlight five interesting facts about Ceylon tea and the island of Sri Lanka.

  1. Coffee was originally planted by the British as the crop that would be used, via export, to pay for this strategic military outpost. Luckily, tea seeds and plants where brought onto the island in the 1840’s for testing by the local botanical garden as an additional crop that could be exported from the island. It wasn’t until 1867 that the first tea plantation went into production, which was fortunate. In the 1870’s, rust would wipe out the coffee plantations in Sri Lanka, at which point the coffee growers ripped out the coffee plantations and replaced them with tea. Without this rust outbreak, Ceylon tea may never had taken off.
  2. First batch of tea grown in Ceylon arrived in England in 1872.
  3. 1 million packets of Ceylon tea were sold at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893.
  4. Sir Thomas Lipton, yes the founder of Lipton tea, had his plantations in Sri Lanka. Lipton tea is no longer grown there (It is grown in Argentina for consumers in North America and Africa for the European market. Lipton will still buy Ceylon tea at auction periodically but they do not own any plantations in Sri Lanka.)
  5. Ceylon tea is typically black tea and can come as both a single estate tea, like Vithanakanda, or a mix of small farms that share a manufacturing facility as in our Ceylon OP1. Periodically you can find a green tea from the island that stands up to the greens from China, like Royal Ceylon Gunpowder.

As an American, you have probably had Ceylon tea even if you were not aware of it. Ceylon tea is judged for its malty flavor with a brisk finish that is toward the back of your mouth.

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