The Taste of a Place

We may have used this post title before, but it’s a feeling we come back to again and again, especially when talking about foods we love. Coffee, cheese, wine, tea…the  significance of each one resonates with both a sense of culture and place to where quite a few of the contributors to this site have called home.

In the Azores, the Menu Includes Coffee, Tea and Tradition

There’s wine and cheese too, in these remote islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Here’s where to get a taste of the past — and present.

Living on a remote island at the mercy of nature demands resiliency, and the Azores do qualify as remote: nine volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, 850 miles off the coast of Portugal, their protectorate. The Azores are known for volcanic craters, natural hot springs, 600-foot waterfalls, mountains, cerulean lagoons and dense forests.

But it has not always been idyllic on the islands. Throughout their history, Azoreans have had to overcome disease, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and hurricanes that have decimated their food supply and threatened their economy and survival.

But they are masters of reinvention and ingenuity: They have learned how to cultivate tea and coffee, plants that are not native to the islands but flourish in the temperate climate and mineral-rich volcanic soil. They have also preserved and perfected centuries-old traditions in cheesemaking and wine production to ensure sustainability and safeguard their culture. They proudly share their agrarian heritage with travelers seeking an authentic Azorean experience.

Coffee

I had to walk briskly to keep up with 66-year-old Manuel Nunes. He climbs the hillsides of his coffee farm with the sure-footedness of a ram, easily negotiating the rocky terrain. His muscular fingers are adept at plucking the beans swiftly from their stems. He will dry them in the sun and roast them on his stovetop in a cast iron pan, to sell as beans and to serve as coffee at Café Nunes in Fajã dos Vimes, a village of 70 people on São Jorge Island.

Mr. Nunes’ tiny farm is the largest plantation in Europe, with 700 plants yielding approximately 1,600 pounds of coffee annually — tiny when compared to major coffee-growing countries. The low altitude coupled with high humidity makes this microclimate ideal for growing arabica coffee. There are no insects on the island that destroy the beans so no chemicals are required. The result is a strong cup of Joe without acidity. Mr. Nunes does nearly all the work himself, including the long harvest from May to September.

“It’s what I love to do. It’s my passion. It’s where I belong. I feel well here,” he said (his daughter, Dina Nunes, did the translating)…

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A More Virtuous Tea

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Tea pickers stand in the scorching sun, hand-plucking the tea leaves for about eight hours a day. Furkan Latif Khan/NPR

Thanks to Julie McCarthy and her colleagues at National Public Radio (USA) for this story posted from our old neighborhood:

Tea Farmer In India Leads Charge For Organic, Evades The Charge Of Elephants

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Tenzing Bodosa is a tea grower and a staunch practitioner of organic farming. He stands in his small tea estate beside the nature preserve he has cultivated.
Furkan Latif Khan/NPR

As you clutch a cuppa for a bit of winter warmth, spare a moment to consider the elaborate process that goes into producing that seemingly simple sip of tea.

In the biggest tea-growing region in India, the hazards alone range from red spider mites to herds of wild elephants.

Grower Tenzing Bodosa, a native of Assam, fights the former and unusually invites the latter.

From the large Bodo tribe and widely known by his first name, Tenzing stands beside the vermilion flames of a brick oven that provides the heat for a drying contraption erected in his backyard. Continue reading

The Etymology of Tea/Chai

Image © Quartz, qz.com

Most of us have either ordered a chai latte at a café before, or at least a cup of tea. I, for one, always assumed that chai was just the Hindi word for tea, and that in the US this always meant tea with certain spices, versus “normal” tea being plain old green or black tea leaves. But instead of getting into semantics, I want to share some of the etymology behind the two words, tea and chai, that I learned from an article in Quartz by Nikhil Sonnad:

“With a few minor exceptions, there are really only two ways to say ‘tea’ in the world. One is like the English term— in Spanish and tee in Afrikaans are two examples. The other is some variation of cha, like chay in Hindi.

Both versions come from China. How they spread around the world offers a clear picture of how globalization worked before ‘globalization’ was a term anybody used. The words that sound like ‘cha’ spread across land, along the Silk Road. The ‘tea’-like phrasings spread over water, by Dutch traders bringing the novel leaves back to Europe.”

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Taste The Place: Navajo Greenthread

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Greenthread (Thelesperma) is a wild plant that thrives in the mid-summer heat of the American Southwest. This bunch is freshly cut, and waiting for rinsing and drying to make Navajo tea. Courtesy of Deborah Tsosie

Give yourself a few minutes for this story about the link between seasonal produce and cultural patrimony:

In the dusty red earth of eastern Arizona’s portion of the Navajo Nation, the main road stretches out beneath the massive white-cloud sky and rubs against barren, chalky mesas; sometimes it skirts the deep, dry crack of a canyon stubbled with sagebrush. Small fields of corn occasionally sprout up beside the road, the short stalks still far from ripe.

But away from the road, tucked beside lakebeds or the foot of a hillside, a mid-summer visitor will find bright yellow flowers beginning to open. They are the crowning blooms of a thin plant that can grow up to two feet tall and which thrives in the heat of this arid region. Called greenthread (Thelesperma), it is used to make Navajo “tea.”

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A garland of greenthread. The dried bundles are brewed with sugar or honey. Courtesy of Ada Cowan

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If You Happen to be in Hong Kong

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Source: globaltimes.cn

Milk tea is the liquid blend of East and West, and if you happen to be in Hong Kong, you will find yourself among a populace that covets this sweet, aromatic drink just as much as Americans crave their daily coffee. Milk tea is the equivalent fast and convenient to-go drink in Hong Kong, and the city gulps down about 2.5 million cups a day. The drink is a a local institution that has a a yearly Hong Kong milk tea contest and this year’s competition was steep, to put it mildly.

Milk tea is a blend of black teas, combined with a high proportion of either evaporated milk and sugar, or simply sweetened condensed milk. The use of concentrated milk products gives milk tea a very thick, creamy consistency, and a high sugar content makes the beverage a harder, stiffer, bolder drink than many Americans would associate with tea.

The specific methods and materials are closely kept secrets of individual diner-like cha chaang tengs, the primary drinking establishments for milk tea, but some of the basics remain the same.

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America’s Only Full-time Tea Taster

The “Green Giant” mechanical tea harvester, one of only a few in the world, does the manual work of 500 people. Wayne’s View Photography/Courtesy of Charleston Tea Plantation

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A Munnar tea estate in Kerala, India, where tea leaves are picked by hand. Photo by Milo Inman.

The two photos and their implications offer a pretty big contrast, but what they have in common is Camellia sinensis, the tea plant.  Continue reading

Shoutout To Tyler Gage & His Runa Crew

RunaLast time I spoke with Tyler, he was just a couple years into his startup. He and I both participated in a program to share our experiences in the form of a live case study shared with social entrepreneurship students at Brown University, which inspired me for quite some time. Still does. Tyler was kind enough to contribute on this site back when he had time. Look at him now. Wow. This story in Scientific American is worth the read:

Can Tea Help Save the Amazon?

An effort in Ecuador might point the way to a more sustainable future for the rainforest and people

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India’s First Organic State

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Tea plantations on the hillside. PHOTO: Reuters/ Rupak De Chowdhuri

The buzzword is organic. From grocery store shelves to textile designers to travel. At the center of this phenomenon is respect to the land, cognizance of the immense potential of living organisms, acknowledgement of a way of life that has restorative powers. Today, India hears that message loud and clear in the North-eastern hill state of Sikkim.

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America’s Own ‘Tea’ Plant

Yaupon growing in the wild in east Texas. This evergreen holly was once valuable to Native American tribes in the Southeastern U.S., which made a brew from its caffeinated leaves. PHOTO: Murray Carpenter for NPR

Yaupon growing in the wild in east Texas. This evergreen holly was once valuable to Native American tribes in the Southeastern U.S., which made a brew from its caffeinated leaves. PHOTO: Murray Carpenter for NPR

Thanks to RAXA Collective’s India operations, specifically in Kerala, there has been no dearth of stories on tea here. Tea’s takeover of the table finds space here. While our travels allow us to bring you tea experiences from across the world. Follow a seed to cup journey in Thailand here. Also be sure of how the iced variety is slowly taking over the world. Now NPR creates some buzz with a piece on North America’s forgotten ‘tea’ plant, probably the only plant from the continent known to contain caffeine.

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Know Your Cup of Tea

While tea has an impressive history stretching back 5,000 years, iced tea has a history stretching back only as far as the discovery of preserving ice. PHOTO: darter.in

While tea has an impressive history stretching back 5,000 years, iced tea has a history stretching back only as far as the discovery of preserving ice. Picture of a tea garden in Munnar, Kerala. PHOTO: darter.in

Having spent the weekend maneuvering through tea plantations in Munnar, the drive brought back memories of conversations over tea here. There was the post on the complete tea experience – from planting a seed to hand plucking the tender green “silver tips” of the tea, to hand roasting and finally enjoying the “fruits” of one’s labor in distant Thailand. The one on the history of tea, too. And here is the account of how America popularized iced tea (we are betting on it being one of your go-to drinks), courtesy NPR’s The Salt: 

You’d be forgiven for not knowing this, but Wednesday was National Iced Tea Day. And while it’s only an unofficial food holiday, it makes sense that Americans would set aside a day to celebrate this favorite summertime sip: We popularized it. Tea itself, of course, has been consumed in America since Colonial times. (Remember the Boston Tea Party?) But before you could drink iced tea, you needed ice — and that was a rare summer luxury until the early 1800s. New Englanders could cut large chunks of ice from frozen ponds and lakes in winter, then insulate it with sawdust so that it could last into the warmer months. But in the hot South, snow and ice didn’t exactly abound.

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Tea’s Takeover

Photo: Milo Inman

Photo: Milo Inman

This is the longest article of its kind on our favored food blog, the salt, on National Public Radio (USA)’s website, but it is worth the read for those inclined to food history; and for those in Raxa Collective’s India operations it goes a long way to explaining those beautifully manicured tea estates in a new light:

Catherine of Braganza was an early celebrity endorser of tea. After she wed Charles II, the fad for tea took off among the British nobility. Kitty Shannon/Corbis/Lebrecht Music & Arts

Catherine of Braganza was an early celebrity endorser of tea. After she wed Charles II, the fad for tea took off among the British nobility. Kitty Shannon/Corbis/Lebrecht Music & Arts

…Tea was practically unknown in Europe until the mid-1600s. But in England, it got an early PR boost from Catherine of Braganza, a celebrity who became its ambassador: The Portuguese royal favored the infusion, and when she married England’s Charles II in 1662, tea became the “it” drink among the British upper classes. But it might have faded as a passing fad if not for another favorite nibble of the nobility: sugar.

In the 1500s and 1600s, sugar was the “object of a sustained vogue in northern Europe,” historian Woodruff Smith wrote in a 1992 paper.

Sugar was expensive

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Seed to Cup Tea Experience

Roasted Assam Tea "nibble" with cane sugar

Roasted Assam Tea “nibble” with cane sugar

Our time in Thailand included a range of sensory experiences, one of which was tea. One might think that living in India, we have little more to learn about tea, but that is far from the truth. Our experience with tea in our adopted home has been more visual than experiential; drives through the beautiful, sculpted tea landscapes of Munnar, or the tea tours near Thekkady, for example.

In the northern Thailand we visited a 60-hectare tea plantation near the Lisu Hilltribe village in Chaing Mai Province. One of the oldest plantations in the country, the owners are working on expanding the quantity of tea produced while offering the full range of tea experience for visitors, from planting a seed that will be lovingly cared for over a 2-year period before being transplanted, to hand plucking the tender green “silver tips” of the tea, Continue reading

Creating CommuniTEA

Since I am a new writer for RAXA Collective, here is an introduction. My name is Kayleigh Levitt and I am currently a Sophomore at Soka University of America in Southern California. My major is in Environmental Studies with a focus in urban sustainability. I am an avid gardener and biophiliac. I believe in the transformative power of community.

I love when I meet people who show me that there are different ways to live than what is expected of us. Guisepi Spadafora serves free tea out of a mini-school bus that runs off recycled vegetable oil and biodiesel. There is a solar panel on the roof of his bus that powers his refrigerator, lights, outlets, water pump and anything he needs electricity for. He gets herbs for his tea donated on a continual basis, so he is able to have a steady menu. The companies give to him freely because they believe in what he does and he believes in what they do.He travels the land, and during a tea party, he opens up his bus and sets out chairs and rugs and serves tea for people.

The way he got started serving free tea for people was not actually on purpose. He honestly started because of loneliness in a big city. He was living in Los Angeles, in his pick-up truck, working full time and did not really have friends other than the friend he was working for. He started going to Hollywood Boulevard and would open up his tailgate, pull out his camp stove and cook a bit of dinner. He would cook a little bit of extra dinner because inevitably someone would say ‘What are you doing?’ and he would say, ‘Oh, I’m cooking dinner, would you care to join me?’ and people would then sit and eat with him, and to keep those interactions going he would just make tea for hours. Every walk of life would sit down with him, from street performers to Japanese tourists to television producers. He got really excited about the actual genuine human interactions he was having.

He had tried to go to the bars, one of the only places where you can know no one and meet people. Girls would come up and talk to him and ask him to buy them a drink, which he considered as the least genuine type of interaction one could have because the only thing they were looking for was his money.

He realized so many of his interactions with strangers were over money. Continue reading