North Caicos Tea Company
Serving up tradition, one sip at a time.
By Jody Rathgeb ~ Photos By Tom Rathgeb
T is for tradition.
T is for taste.
T is for time.
T is for tenacity.
But most of all, T is for tea, which blends all of the above into the island experience of North Caicos Tea Company.
Caicos Tea Company is a North Caicos venture which sells traditional bush teas and tea blends. It was created by Donna Gardiner as a way of preserving local culture and sharing the knowledge of the “old ways” on the island where she grew up. “I want Caicos Teas to represent the ‘bush tea’ tradition for those who can’t go out and pick leaves for their daily drink,” she says.
The business got underway in earnest at the beginning of 2016, although the idea had been growing for a while. As a child in Major Hill, Donna took the tea tradition for granted, commenting that her paternal grandmother, Susan Gardiner, simply assumed that no one left the house in the morning without first drinking some tea . . . at least three mouthfuls. Years later, she was surprised when others asked about the tea she brought with her to a former job. She began sharing with friends, then experimenting with dried plants, doing every step by hand: picking, drying, bagging and packaging. Caicos Tea Company was born.
The current line in the fledgling business includes six teas: Caicos Sunshine (a blend of fever grass, mint and citrus), soursop, moringa mint, fever grass, mint, and a soursop-fever grass blend. All are made from natural herbs found on North Caicos, none has caffeine, and all can be served hot or cold after brewing. Older Islanders have long used these teas for health benefits (see sidebar), although Donna is careful of making specific claims. Her tea boxes state only, “Our teas have long been cherished for their health promoting properties.”
Developing a tradition into a business has been a process full of learning and trial-and-error, Donna says. First came finding the plants and learning how to dry them properly. She has sought out the wisdom of older people on North Caicos for gathering plants and now, she says, “I believe I know all the plants on the island.” She continues, “I like getting them from the senior citizens. I get both the plants and the stories, just a little chitchat.”
Most people make their own bush tea from fresh plants, so figuring out the drying process was a matter of experimentation. “When they’re drying, they all behave differently,” she says. Fever grass (also known as lemongrass in other cultures), for example, is easy to work with when green, but harder to handle when drying has made the leaf edges sharp and tough. “Moringa has been the hardest teacher,” Donna notes, recalling an entire batch that had to be thrown away because of improper drying. Caicos Teas are dried naturally with sun and air, so the weather comes into play.
“There’s a tea for everything”
Each box of Caicos Tea includes a quote from Susan B. Gardiner, grandmother of the company’s owner: “There’s a tea for everything.”
One would be hard-pressed to find any aficionado of bush tea who believes differently. Island tradition assigns a tea as a cure for all sorts of ailments, from tummy rumbles to diseases that are puzzles to modern medicine. Donna Gardiner of Caicos Tea Company makes no specific health claims for her teas, but she has listened to the lore and done research on the benefits of her herbal teas. Here are her comments about the six teas she offers:
Mint: Many cultures acknowledge the soothing qualities of mint, making it a natural for problems with digestion and other stomach ailments.
Soursop: Its relaxing qualities aid with insomnia, and it is known to help reduce blood pressure. “I know people who take soursop tea to manage blood pressure, but you should work along with your doctor if you’re going to try it,” Donna says. Soursop is also good for headaches and, she adds, “Some studies show soursop has some possible effects against cancer.”
Fever grass: Known in some other cultures as lemongrass, fever grass gets its TCI name from its ability to cool the body and bring down a fever. It is often used to ease the symptoms of a cold or flu.
Moringa: Sometimes referred to as the “miracle” tree, moringa is used for colds, fevers and blood pressure. Every part of the tree is used for something. The teas Donna makes are from the moringa leaves, but she is now experimenting with its flowers. Moringa has a very strong, distinct flavour, so she pairs it with mint.
Soursop-moringa blend: “We did this mostly because it’s fun and improves the flavour.”
Caicos Sunshine: The most popular of the teas, this is a blend of fever grass and mint with a touch of citrus (Donna uses lime leaves). “The traditional blend,” she says, “is the medicine my grandmother and every grandmother used for everything. It’s also a fun blend and makes a nice iced tea.”
A number of other traditional bush teas are touted as something to “make you strong” . . . a veiled reference to aphrodisiac qualities. Currently, Caicos Tea Company doesn’t have any such blends, but Donna is experimenting with brasiletto, cerasee and dill, all of which are reported to help “strength.”