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Tea and the original Big Pharma

So you think that the history of  tea, that most civilized  of beverages, has a past as genteel as sipping ladies and silver services? Think again.

Coat of Arms of East India Company. Latin for “By the authority of King and Parliament of England.”

Since the 1600s, (when tea was introduced to Great Britain), the major importer was the East India Company, the Amazon of its day — if Amazon had its own militia,  governance, and a trade monopoly. But tea’s popularity became its problem.  China did not want to trade British goods for tea: It wanted silver.  And it wasn’t only tea the British market coveted, but fine silks and porcelain too. What to do? Answer:  opium.  

Opium poppy from India

Although the Chinese emperor banned smoking opium in the mid-18th century and  outlawed it by the 1793, the Brits, in the guise of East India company, saw a sterling opportunity.

By mid-1800s, ten million Chinese were addicted.

Since they controlled much of India, they cultivated opium from poppies and through third party suppliers, flooded the Chinese market with opium, using the profits to buy tea, silks and porcelain.   By 184O, opium paid for the entire tea trade and more than 10 million Chinese were addicted. 

The first opium war was sparked in 1839 when the Chinese destroyed more than 20,000 tea chests totally 1,400 tons of opium warehoused in Canton (Guangzhu). Then, a group of drunk British sailors killed a Chinese villager. The Chinese refused to hand over the soldiers to be tried in a British court.  British warships then  destroyed the blockade at Pearl river and captured Nanking in 1842.  The result of the Opium War led to China paying the Brits, ceding Hong Kong and increasing the number of treaty ports from one to five — including Shanghai.  It also gave Britain the right to try its citizens in British courts and granted Britain  favored nation status. This, and the second Opium War, led to the legalization of opium and to the weakening of the Qing Dynasty, that began in 1611 and was toppled by 1911.

And that, dear readers, is how tea lead to the Big Pharma of its day addicting a whole nation and destroying a dynasty.  Opium was not eradicated in China until the 1940s with ascendancy of Mao.


Part 2: “You’ve got cancer:” What I did.

UnknownWhen I was diagnosed with invasive, stage 2-3 breast cancer, I was stunned. So this is where   a lifetime of healthy eating, exercise, and devotion to polyphenol-laden teas will get you. I soon found myself stumbling in a dark night of indecision, ignorance, and frustration. A wrong turn could mean death; a right turn, recovery;  somewhere in the middle lay a life that I did not want to live.

When my children were in grade school,  one of the mothers at my son’s elementary school became a good friend. Unlike the blond, black velvet headband set, Robin was an offbeat, independent, creative photographer who saw the world through a lens of hilarity, darkness, and optimism.

From Robin Gneiting exhibit

From 2006 Robin Gneiting exhibit: talent extinguished way too soon.

Then she got cancer.  She tried every treatment available from accepted to experimental. Perhaps knowing the worst, she gave herself a gourmet-catered, blow-out party complete with a band, dancing until dawn, and unlimited eats and bar.  Less than a year later, she lay on a hospital bed in a coma.  “It wasn’t her,” a friend said after visiting her.

I told myself this would never be me either.  I  soon became victim to the “top doc” syndrome. That’s when contacts – friends, family, friend of friend – magically get you an appointment impossible for most patients without “connections.” What a system! . For me, it was  the office of a famed oncologist. A few days prior to the appointment, a young man telephoned, and asked me if I  wanted him there to record the meeting. .Did I need a translator? Obviously. At the appointment, the  brilliant cancer doctor gave me a cancer treatise and  rapid fire treatment plan. Or I think so. Upshot: I should start heavy duty chemo yesterday.  I went home, put the tape in a drawer and never saw her again.

And the tumor kept growing.

I asked the nice oncology nurse  who she would recommend if her mother got cancer. Without hesitation, she said  Dr. W. I made an appointment.  Dr. W, spent half an hour citing studies. i returned for a follow-up  He too advocated chemo. I asked for other options. He mentioned one.  I asked what he suggested. “It’s your decision,” he said. I asked him again.  Same answer. What about all those studies? Same answer. Finally, in desperation, I asked him what he would advise his mother. “I can’t answer that,” he snapped as I burst into tears of frustration.  “And,” he said, gathering up his pen and clipboard,” I don’t have time for this.” I stumbled out of there in shock. . Since everyone told me to stay away from alcohol, I went home and had a few glasses of wine. Sorry, tea cup.

And the tumor kept growing.

Next stop, the cancer surgeon.  In the rabbit hole of cancerland, he was empathy personified.   I  agreed to “hormonal therapy,”a nice Orwellian turn of phrase for estrogen-draining pills. These “aromataze  inhibitors,” sound like a gentle type of anti- perfume, right?   I soon had fiery joint/muscle pain that made walking akin to knives in my legs.  I tried a pharmacopea of other pills, which included such side effects as dizziness,  hair loss, loss of balance, forgetfulness, depression, exhaustion, insomnia.The empathetic surgeon took the  lump out. I had  radiation.  At the final session, the radiation nurses handed me a “diploma” signed with upbeat messages by the staff. Could I leave cancerland now? .

Not quite. The radiation oncologist gave me a stern and scary lecture when I hesitated  taking post-radiation medication for the next five years. I filled the prescription.  Shortly after, I went to New York where I lost my balance and fell hard on my face  in front of the lions at the NY Public Library,  I went to a fancy drugstore to patch up my face and threw the pills in a dark drawer when I got home. Enough.

I decided to take my chances. That was four years ago.

Do I think that the more tea/ less cancer science is a fraud? Not really, although a lot of these studies are either on mice or don’t control enough for lifestyle. (Do people who drink tea get more exercise, eat better?).  I say drink tea because you like it, not because it is “good” for you. “Just think how much worse you would have had it without all that tea,” said a  tea vendor.

That’s good enough. for me.



Return of the lilac tea room: Part I: a cruel twist

In 2014, I went to France with fluent-in-French daughter to tour the Loire Valley. Never mind that a few weeks earlier, I felt a breast lump the size of one of the meyer lemons on my tree in  San Francisco .  My seen-it-all internist told me it was no doubt a cyst and  to check it out when I came back. So off I went to explore castles, small towns, and the famed tapestries at Angers. At Le Cremet d”Anjou,  a modest, but Michelin -starred  restaurant on a pin-drop quiet side street,  I had the best dessert of my life: Cremets d”Angers. (right)images-8IMG_1992

In Blois, we happened to see a beauty contest at the local castle.  The contestants clearly had not done their Pilates and looked actually  human. In Bourges, we spent a rainy May Day sitting at a cafe sipping from a pichet of  vin blanc..

Nothing, I thought,  can go wrong in such a verdant setting. Breast lumps, please! For years, I’ve drunk daily liters of polyphenol-rich tea, waxed lyrical about about tai guan yen versus dah hong pao, avoided sugar and anything hinting of nitrates.I’ve been a regular at yoga and tai chi and read and reported about the anti-cancer properties of green tea, black tea, red tea. A few years ago, I covered the 5th Scientific Symposium on Tea and Health, where a lot of the papers were on tea and cancer. From a lifestyle and academic perspective,  all the boxes were checked.

Back to earth in San Francisco: At the  hospital’s “breast care center,” the routine is to put on a pink (!) gown, get your mammogram, and then sit in the waiting room until you are quietly told the usually now- you -can -exhale” results. Then you get dressed and leave.  But for the unfortunate few, the pink gown stays on. It’s the whispery sympathy  that gets you as you are ushered into another room to speak with the radiologist. That’s when the tall brusk white coat said to me, “you have cancer.”

I’ll spare the details.   Suffice to say that the  not-to-worry cyst turned out to be stage 2-3 invasive cancer. Thus began my odyssey into the hazardous world of cancerland.

Those of certain age might  remember controversial nutritionist Adelle Davis, whose best-selling books, such as “Let’s Eat Right!” and “How to Raise Healthy Children” railed against processed, pesticide laden food.Said Adelle when she found out she had cancer:“I thought this was for people who drink soft drinks, who eat white bread, who eat refined sugar and so on.”

Poor Adeile died of multiple myeloma, a plasma cancer. Was I destined to be the Adele Davis of tea without the fame?

UnknownWhat about treatment? After a lifetime of healthy, no-junk food eating – even when it wasn’t fashionable; after decades of scoffing at any ingredient I couldn’t pronounce, was I going to become infused with scary chemo? What do you do when doing nothing, according to the oncologists, means  death? What do you do when a sympathetic oncologist goes into a rather lyrical description of drugs you can take to lessen the pain of dying? Or another one goes into quite gothic prose to describe the horrors that await those who Do Nothing?

Cancer upended more than one life. Fluent French daughter started packing up to come home, wherever that meant in her whirlwind life. A friend, an artist of some renown who I have known for years, actually took to her bed for three days– and then became a rock of support. Others – strangely relatives – spun horror tales and became very busy. If you are still with me, stay tuned for what happened.

But circa 2017, I’m still around .

Part 2: Still here::  What I did



Cheese at the French Pavilion at the Food Show: Try these with tea!

Nathalie Barbier of Fromagerie Delin

Nathalie Barbier of Fromagerie Delin at the Fancy Food Show in SF.

If  anyone needed proof, a stroll around the  French pavilion at the SF Fancy Food Show was testimony to the  tradition, skill and care of French cheese makers. Here are a few: From Bourgogne between Beaune and Dijon, comes Fromagerie Delin’s line of meltingly runny, slightly tangy and utterly deliciously creamy bries – some with an herb coatings — that relegates all those rindy, spongy “bries” to cheese purgatory.

Sold under the label Brillant Savarin (after the famed French gastronome who wrote The Physiology of Taste), the cheese was developed in 1930 in Normandy; production later moved to Bourgogne. It has a soft creamy texture, slightly tangy and sweet nut-like taste and should be eaten young and fresh. Other labels in the line include Regal de Bourgogne, Cremeux and Prestige (in Canada). Packaged  in traditional rounds as well as small vacuum-packed tubs, they are enriched with creme fraiche and have a texture that literally melts in the mouth. Try this with a full-bodied darjeeling or tie-guan yin oolong. Surprise: You can buy it at Cosco as well as Whole Foods.

A delicious chèvre tart was on the menu at the Courturier booth where French chef consultant Gregory Cormanexpert chef (right) expertly  julienned leeks for a tart with goat cheese. Many of the smaller Courturier chèvre logs are made in Hudson Valley; larger, ripened ones are imported from France. Try plain or with herb dusting. The tart is perfect for a savory tea. Courturier cheeses are sold at Molly Stone and at Safeway, yes, Safeway, among other stores. 

From the limestone caves of France comes Roquefort – tangy, veiny, without the overpowering  taste you might have been put off by in the past. It’s  the specialty of Papillion Black Label  that’s been around since 1906. roquefort sliceThe process uses its own baked rye bread to cultivate Penicillium Roqueforti, which gives the Lacaune sheep roquefort its unique taste that’s assertive,  complex and literally melts in your mouth. If you’ve been put off by roquefort, but are still intrigued, try the one from Papillion. Pair with a strong tea- pu-erh, rock oolong, or Assam. Papillon is sold  on Amazon and fine cheese stores. roquefort



LTR goes to the Winter Fancy Food Show in SF: new kids in the market

winter fancy food showSo what’s new? Caramel everywhere and of course seas of gluten free everything. Salted chocolates seem to have reached sodium saturation. But what stood out at the huge fancy food show in foodie San Francisco were both the old-timers whose time may have come and a plethora of young-uns with good ideas and products.

What goes with tea? How is your imagination treating you these epicdays? How about an Epic meat bar – specifically a turkey/cranberry or lamb/currant mint or habanero/cherry bar made from grass-fed animals with ingredients you can actually understand. And no soy. No sugar. No nitrates. Think about pairing with a full bodied oolong or perhaps a strong black keemun or even a milder darjeeling. These are tastes that call for bold pairings.

IMG_3055Based in Austin, Texas, the company was started a year and half ago by Katy Forrest, a ironman athlete and Taylor Collins, a triathlete,  two  competitive – and vegetarian –  athletes, who, after trying a variety of diets from vegan to raw – found their energy waning, their performance lacking and their recovery time waning. They had already founded  Thunderbird Energetica, a line of vegetarian protein bars. But when they found that  protein in the form of meat transformed their energy level and performance, Epic, the meat energy bar was born. Even if you’re not planning on running a marathon, a turkey/cranberry  bar cut into cubes makes a great addition to a savory afternoon tea.

simple millsLow fat muffins may be more conventional tea fare, but for flavor and taste, Simple Mills, a new company out of Chicago, makes an innovative  baking mix that is not only low in calories, but is also gluten free, has minimal sugar and additives – and is also very tasty and no-fuss. Just add oil, water and eggs, and bake for 20 minutes. Ingredients include almond flour and coconut nectar for sugar.  Founded by a young biology graduate of University of North Carolina, who saw a need for a healthy,  no-additive, no wheat muffin, flavors include banana, chocolate, pumpkin, chocolate chip, and focaccia and sandwich bread mix.

katlin smithKatlin Smith (left) was working in Atlanta as a strategy and operations consultant with Deloitte when, suffering from joint pain, she changed to a gluten and dairy free diet. But scouring supermarket aisles for healthy food became an exercise in frustration. Soon Smith, an petite, energetic and can-do entrepreneur began experimenting with recipes. After a lot of trial and error – she also took chemistry at UNC –  Simple Mills as born. Starting out by herself, Smith rented a test kitchen, did all her own mixing and packaging, and was on her way. Her product is not only healthy, but moist and flavorful without the aftertaste of a lot of additive-laden mixes. Today, Smith has eight employees and is carried by Whole Foods online at Amazon and also in 500 stores nationwide.

Stay tuned for more from fancy food show….