Tag Archives: Tea

A Spot of Tea, Now and Then

As mentioned before, we’ve had some amazing weekends away at tea plantations.  Several estates have renovated the old colonial homes into guest houses, including Lujeri and Huntington House.  Both sites are stunning, as I’ve written about before.  There is something about the houses and the pace of life on the estate that makes you feel like you have truly gone back in time.  The weekends spent at tea estates are always full of time outside, playing lawn sports (including the newly discovered paddle tennis) and drinking tea or gin and tonics.  It is easy to take the sprawling, emerald tea fields for granted, believing them to have been planted there just to make the estates more picturesque, more breath-takingly beautiful.  Yet tea, as a cash crop, plays a crucial role in the history of Malawi and its current economy.

The Porch at Huntington House

Lujeri House and Gardens

So nice of them to plant all of this tea in which we can frolic

While researching tea for an article for Ulendo, I discovered that Malawi is the oldest consistent producer of tea on the entire African continent.

A Brief History of Tea Cultivation in Malawi

Deep within the Blantyre CCAP Mission’s botanical gardens are the two oldest growing tea plants in Africa.  These two plants are responsible for one of Malawi’s largest exports and some of the finest tea produced in the world.  Tea cultivation in Africa began as early as 1850 in Natal,  South Africa, where it was later abandoned to grow sugar.  After Natal, Malawi (or then Nyasaland) developed tea as a cash crop and is the oldest ongoing tea producer on the continent.

Tea at Setemwa tea tasting

The early European settlers in Nyasaland concentrated on coffee and tobacco but continued to experiment with tea, wheat, ginger, and fruit trees in their gardens.  The first shipment of tea and coffee plants arrived in Nyasaland in 1878 from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, yet only one coffee plant seedling survived the long voyage.  Mr. Elmslie, a missionary, brought another shipment of seedlings from Edinburgh in 1886.  According to most sources, the Blantyre Mission gardener, Mr. Duncan, was able to keep two of the tea plants alive where they continue to grow today.  Other sources, however, dispute the provenance of these two tea plants.  In 1895, the Nyasaland Foreign Office demanded to know why plants had not been sent by Kew Gardens. The manager of Kew Gardens at the time, Sir W. Thistleton Dyer, responded defensively that he had indeed sent several consignments of tea plants in June 1886, September 1886, and August 1894.  Sir Dyer complained that no acknowledgement of receipt had been sent.  We know the three shipments passed through the African Lakes Company and on to Dr. Laws at the Livingstonia Mission.  There is no record, however, of the tea surviving or being planted, but there is some speculation that the two plants at the Blantyre Mission could be from the Kew Gardens.

While the Missionaries were responsible for nurturing the first Nyasaland tea plants, Henry Brown is often thought of as the father of the Nyasaland tea industry.  He moved to Nyasaland in 1891 after his coffee plantations in Ceylon were decimated by disease.  Mr. Brown had seen the tea plants at the Mission and asked for twenty seeds, which he planted in Mulanje at his Thornwood Estate and at Lauderdale Estate.  Mr. Brown was passionate about the tea’s potential and replaced every dead coffee plant with tea on his estate until it became the predominant crop.  A contemporary of Mr. Brown, Rev. A. J. Smith wrote that “the real pioneer of tea in Nyasaland is undoubtedly Mr. Henry Brown who … for many years persevered through sunshine and storm to make the industry a success.”

Satemwa Tea Factory

Despite Brown’s enthusiasm, it took Nyasaland tea several years to develop quality and taste.  The Rev. Smith tasted local tea as early as 1887 and described his disgust, “oh the horror of it.”  Mr. Brown shared his home-brewed tea at Blantyre’s Sports Week.  Mr. Maw “tasted it and found it was awful, in fact so awful that it merited the well known word [bloody] which prefixed the ‘awful’.”  However, tea cultivation continued to improve and progress; the persistent Mr. Brown submitted his samples at the Agriculture and Sports Show in 1898 where his won first prize.  The report from the show indicates “tea perhaps is not generally suited to the Shire Highlands but Mlanje with its greater rainfall has produced tea which should become one of the by-products of the Protectorate.”

At the turn of the century, tea samples were sent to Kew Gardens, the Imperial Institute, and commercial brokers for evaluation.  Unfortunately, the samples were packed with tobacco, which overpowered the smell and taste so it could only be judged based on appearance.  In 1909 Mr. McClounie from Nyasaland’s Scientific Department toured several estates in Mulanje and declared that the tea bushes were growing well and found the tea to be “very palatable.”

Tea was also experimentally planted in Limbe, Zomba, Mwanza, Mangochi, Karonga, and Michiru but failed to flourish.  In Thyolo, however, tea grew well and the region slowly began to develop in the 1920’s and 1930’s as planters there abandoned rubber and tobacco.

1911 was a seminal year for tea production in Nyasaland.  Lauderdale Estate introduced a hydroelectric factory complete with rollers and dryers.  The Agricultural Department reported that “the local tea has greatly improved since the introduction of proper firing machinery, and The Blantyre and East Africa Limited are now erecting a large factory where they will carry out the making and packing of tea from their own adjoining estates: This is most fortunate as small estates cannot bear the cost of expensive machinery.”

Exporting the tea was a laborious and costly business. In the early days of production, J. A. Hutson writes that the “original route was by head load down the Shire River and thence by river steamer to the sea, and by 1903 it was estimated that some 30,000 to 40,000 Africans were engaged in this work.”  The process improved in 1909 when the Shire Highlands railroad opened and was later extended to the Zambezi in 1915.

Despite the logistical challenges, exports continued to steadily rise; by 1905 there were 260 acres producing 1200 pounds of black tea.  In 1908 Nyasaland exported 23,000 pounds of black tea, which was valued at 598 pounds sterling.  By 1918 there were 4,523 acres of tea.  In 1924, Nyasaland was exporting tea worth one million pounds sterling.  The collapse of the tobacco market drove many planters to transition to tea and by 1940 there were 18,528 acres of tea, roughly divided between Mulanje and Thyolo.  While tobacco surpassed tea as the largest foreign exchange earner in the 1960’s, tea production continued to increase and in 2006, Malawi was exporting over 45,000 metric tons of black tea.

Today Malawi is making concerted efforts to promote small holder tea farming and fair trade tea; at least sixteen percent of tea acres are managed by small holder farmers.  Malawian tea is in high demand and is exported to over thirty countries around the world.  And this whole robust industry stems from the two 123-year old tea plants still growing on the grounds of the Blantyre Mission.

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Cookies, coffee, and a wee bit of History…

Saturday morning we ran a few errands (including booking a night at Mvuu game lodge for when Meghan and Kate are here!) and decided to go to Mandala House for coffee.  Mandala House was built in 1882 and is the oldest European building in Malawi.  It was built for John and Frederick Moir, Scottish brothers who had been involved in Livingstone’s missionary trip in 1875.  The brothers founded the Livingstonia Central African Mission Company that later became the African Lakes Corporation.  This building, the headquarters for the company, became known as Mandala, after John Moir’s local name.  Mandala loosely means “pools of water”, a reference to Moir’s spectacles.

Mandala House

The building is classically British colonial and looks like it could have been built in the West Indies, East Indies, or outside of Charleston, South Carolina.  It has broad verandas, wide planked hardwood floors, and large airy windows.

Side of Mandala House

The top floor hosts the Society of Malawi archives, a conference room and a small library.  Downstairs is home to a gallery displaying carvings, paintings, and other works of art by some of Malawi’s leading artists.

And then there is La Caverna, the Italian-run cafe.  Here, you can sit on the brick patio, under the trees (or under the porch if it’s raining) and sip your French press coffee, latte, or cappuccino. 

French Press

You could also have lunch and enjoy one of the daily specials, like mushroom risotto.  And if you really want to spoil yourself you could order from the daily selection of cookies, cake, or gelato.

Daily Specials

 Personally, I can recommend the peanut butter and the chocolate chunk cookies. 

Freshly Baked Cookies

The staff here is warm and welcoming and doesn’t seem to mind that we camped out for multiple cups of coffee and multiple orders of cookies.

Really happy about the cookies

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Tea in Malawi

Chrissie and me

Thursday morning, I bundled into a 1987 Nissan pick-up truck with our good family friend Chrissie and her mother.  Chrissie and her family have been close with Sandy’s family for almost ten years.  They have been quick to adopt us and make us feel at home.  Chrissie was taking her mother back to the village where she lives and offered to let me come along.  Chrissie’s mother is an amazing woman.  At 82 years old, she is strong and quick and managed the (extremely) bumpy ride through the country-side more gracefully than I did.

We took a nice paved road out of Blantyre and through the peaceful suburbs.  After about 15 minutes of driving, the landscape became lush, mountainous, and gorgeous.  Like every road in Malawi, there were people walking or biking along side.  Many of the women exhibited super human strength carrying bushels of firewood, fruit, vegetables, or buckets of water on their heads.

After another twenty minutes or so, the landscape changed again.  As we started passing large tea estates, I suddenly felt like I was in Tuscany except it was tea instead of vineyards.  Tea fields stretched out on gentle hills as far as you could see.  Long avenues were lined with tall blue gum trees.  Entrances to the estates were well manicured with brightly colored flowers and bushes.  The tea plants themselves were beautiful – they were a really gorgeous shade of brilliant lime green – I hope it comes out in the pictures.

It turns out that Chrissie owns several large plots of land and grows tea as part of a conglomerate.  We turned off the tarmac into a large estate where she has her three parcels and onto a mud path full of rocks and ruts.  One time we bounced so high that the camera sitting in my lap flew off into the floor.  Another time I tried to take a picture out the window with said camera, but the truck was jumping so much, the fool-proof auto focus couldn’t zero in on anything. 

When we arrived at her main piece of land, we got out (it took me a minute for my legs to adjust – dirt road legs, like sea legs) and she showed me how they harvest the leaves by snapping off the youngest two or three leaves along with the bud.  The workers carry big sacks on their backs full of the blooms.  The tea is then weighed and sent to the large processing center on the estate.  I loved experiencing the whole process and was so appreciative of Chrissie taking me to see it all.  Having spent some time in the Southern US, Chrissie knows of our propensity for  tea, preferably iced and sweet.

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