Discovering a genuine tea farm

Picking tea leaves for drying

Just a short drive from the heart of Nairobi, Kenya, I had the pleasure to get an insight into life on a settler’s tea plantation.

Nairobi isn’t a pretty city but it has the advantage of being close to nature and wild life delights. This cloudy but pleasantly warm morning, we drove up the hills to Kiambethu farm at Limuru province some 2000 meters.

Fiona Vernon – whose grandfather planted tea there in 1918 – came out to greet us to her spot of paradise, situated in a particularly lush and green part of Kenya. We were a bit early, so I had ample time to stroll around in her marvellous garden, with flowers we in Europe only can buy expensively in some exclusive shops. The colourful birds were rejoicing at collecting their sweet nectar. The gardener was busy cleaning away the weeds and happy to take a rest to tell me about all the different plants they were growing.

When the rest of the group had arrived, Fiona started the tour around her now much smaller tea plantation. She explained how her grand-father, AB McDonell, had bought the farm and was the first person to grow, make and sell tea commercially in Kenya – now one of the country’s biggest exports.

That was approximately at the same time as Karen and her husband, the Swedish Baron, Bror Blixen, started their coffee farm not far away. Their life story is told in Karen’s autobiography “Out of Africa”, later turned into a movie, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.

Tea was easier to grow than coffee in these heights though. It grew so well that a factory was constructed on the farm. It was in use until the 1960s. Finally parts of the farm were sold to a neighbouring Kenyan tea farmer and only a small portion left for the family. However it provides enough tealeaves for the farm to survive. Fiona showed us the tea plants and how the leaves are delicately picked daily by hand. The leaves are put in baskets that the pickers carry on their backs before spreading them out on blankets on the floor. Each day they have to be taken to a tea factory for immediate processing.

Each farm’s tealeaves are mixed according to quality determined by specialized tea-tasters and then sent to the auctions at the Mombasa docks. The tea brokers know the areas and their different flavours, and can thus make the blend that suits their brand. It’s seldom that a tea is made from only one plantation. Mombasa is the port for most of the African tea growing countries from where the tea is then shipped off to far away lands.    

So whenever you take a sip of Lipton tea, you also have a taste of Kenya. Your warming cup of tea has made it through many hands and travelled far to reach your taste buds. There are many miseries in this world of ours but equally many miracles. Let’s not forget that and treasure what we do have, giving all tea farmers around the world a thankful thought and, as I am concerned, especially Fiona and her pickers. I will definitely never take my morning tea for granted any more!

Anne Edelstam         

El Greco the precursor of modernity

Saint Veronica, 1580, with the veil with the image of the Christ

The Greek painter, Doménikos Theotokópoulos, alias Greco, is one of the world’s most original renaissance painters and masters. He inspired avant-garde artists and impressionists.

Saint Lucas, 1605

The Grand Palais, in Paris, invites us to an extraordinary exhibition this winter (until 20 February 2020) with 75 masterpieces on display. The queues have circled long to get into the ancient palace to view this wild and unclassifiable genius. However, France has been on strike since nearly two weeks now, with hardly any public transport working, so the affluence to the museums has been rather restricted. It is thus an excellent time to go and see as many exhibitions as possible I discovered, provided one has good walking shoes.

The exhibition’s scenography, with simple white walls, leaves the monopoly on colour to the artist whose palette is explosive! It also gives it a touch of modernity.  

Viewing Greco’s elongated figures, reminded me of Giacometti; his flying persons of Chagall; his sometimes very sketchy portraits of the impressionists. I now understand why Greco is called the modernists’ precursor. Despite his predominantly Christine realistic paintings of the 16th century, his prodigy is such that his art doesn’t age.

The Annunciation, 1576.

During these days of Advent, Greco reminds us of why we celebrate Christmas. “A Saviour was born” and with Him: joy as a promise for humankind. Whatever metaphysical thoughts the visitor might – or might not – have, it’s impossible to stay impassable in front of such works of art. The emotions are palpable. The modern painters understood that very well.

However it was more difficult for Greco during his lifetime to get the recognition he so well deserved. After having tried his luck in the highly competitive Venetian market, he moved on to Rome where he perfected his skill at portraits in a personal style, some of which are exposed at the Grand Palais. But it was in Spain that he found his artistic roots and appreciative public, and where he finally settled down.

The Christ chasing the merchants at the Temple, 1575

Toledo, one of Europe’s leading artistic and cultural centres in those days, became the setting for many of Greco’s compositions, consisting mainly of religious scenes. The spread of private devotion led many families to found their own chapels and oratories on top of the orders he got from the Church. One of his best-known series is the one about Christ driving the traders from the temple.

Greco placed painting above all other arts and his colours are as vivid today as they must have been then. There are few drawings that have survived, as he destroyed most of them.

The Saint Family, 1580-85

This exhibition reminds us that a genius, even if he did fall into oblivion for a while, never really dies. Impressionists and avant-garde artists rediscovered him. Cézanne, Chagall and Picasso have lifted him up to be their prophet. And we’re lucky to be able to admire his works, well exhibited in this grandiose palace. Praying to Greco’s God that the strikers will make a halt during the Christmas season, so as many as possible will be able to view this fabulous exhibition. Merry Christmas!

Anne Edelstam, Paris