At an an­cient Corn­wall es­tate, acres of camel­lia bushes pro­duce Bri­tain’s first home­grown tea

Landscape (UK) - - Con­tents - Words: Emma Inglis

Cul­ti­vat­ing a Bri­tish brew

sun slowly light­ens the early spring sky above an en­closed penin­sula, eight miles in­land of the Cor­nish coast. Low clouds slowly rear­range in shapes of grey above the glossy green leaves of thou­sands of camel­lia plants. As the dawn cho­rus fills the val­ley, pre­cious leaf buds sit be­low, wait­ing to be picked. This is Tre­goth­nan, the pro­ducer of the first tea grown in Eng­land, and in­deed the UK. It may be known as the most Bri­tish of brews but, his­tor­i­cally, tea leaves have come from In­dia, China, Sri Lanka and Kenya. To­day, this valu­able crop grown in Corn­wall is be­ing turned into very spe­cial brews that have found favour even in the tra­di­tional home of the camel­lia. The es­tate, on the banks of the Fal es­tu­ary, is home to mem­bers of the Boscawen fam­ily, who have lived here since 1334. As well as the 150 acres de­voted to grow­ing tea bushes, there is a 100-acre botan­i­cal gar­den and thou­sands of acres of farm and wood­land. The Boscawens have a long his­tory of botan­i­cal en­deav­our. Two cen­turies ago, they spon­sored plant hun­ters and brought rhodo­den­drons, rare trees and or­na­men­tal camel­lias from across the globe to the es­tate.

In­spi­ra­tion from In­dia

It is the ever­green Camel­lia sinen­sis shrub that pro­duces the leaves from which all tea comes, whether it is black, white or green. A na­tive of South East Asia and the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent, it is to­day cul­ti­vated across the world in trop­i­cal and sub­trop­i­cal re­gions. Camel­lia sinen­sis is one of the few species of camel­lia that con­tains caf­feine. While there are oth­ers, such as Camel­lia japon­ica, C. sinen­sis is favoured as a tea crop due to its flavour. In 1999, Tre­goth­nan’s owner, Eve­lyn Boscawen, and his gar­den direc­tor, Jonathon Jones, came up with the idea to grow tea, in­spired by an early flow­er­ing mag­no­lia from north In­dia and the ease with which the or­na­men­tal camel­lias grew. Camel­lia sinen­sis plants grow well in acidic, well-drained soils, with an ideal pH of 4.5-5.5. They re­quire warm, moist con­di­tions with at least 39in (100cm) of an­nual rain­fall. The ideal as­pect is south-fac­ing, with pro­tec­tion from ex­treme weather. All th­ese con­di­tions are found at Tre­goth­nan. “The key thing for th­ese plants is the mi­cro­cli­mate here,” says Jonathon. “We are far enough in­land to be free from salt-winds, and we have an 18m deep sea creek run­ning through the es­tate, which means we get rel­a­tively warm weather in win­ter. On top of that, we have all the usual things that tea needs: the right rain­fall, soil pH, shel­ter belt and as­pect of land.” The fol­low­ing year, thanks to a schol­ar­ship awarded by the Nuffield Trust, Jonathon was able to visit tea gar­dens across the globe. “I de­lib­er­ately went to the widest spec­trum of gar­dens that I could find,” he says. “I didn’t just go to suc­cess­ful tea gar­dens, I went to those that were strug­gling. It’s a very di­verse and com­pli­cated in­dus­try. It is done in so many dif­fer­ent ways.” On his re­turn, he con­tin­ued to ex­per­i­ment and re­search. He had col­lected cut­tings and seedlings on his trav­els and started to prop­a­gate tea plants from them. “I was busy test­ing the the­ory, and con­vinc­ing my­self, that this was go­ing to be an in­dus­try, not just a nov­elty at­tached to the gar­den,” he says.

Do­nated tea plants

As word be­gan to spread of the es­tate’s plans, ad­vice started to come in from botanists and other ex­perts. “The re­cep­tion was amaz­ing. One of the coun­try’s fore­most au­thor­i­ties on tea cul­ti­va­tion, the late Dr Rex El­lis, would paint wa­ter­colours show­ing me how we should grow our tea. He sent me an es­say telling me in no un­cer­tain terms what I’d got wrong

and what was go­ing to work. It was re­ally valu­able.” Other re­tired tea grow­ers gave their life­time col­lec­tion of tea bushes which they had brought back to the UK. As a re­sult of th­ese do­na­tions, to­day there are 35 dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of tea bush on the es­tate. Th­ese in­clude Camel­lia sinen­sis var. sinen­sis, C. sinen­sis var. as­sam­ica and their own cul­ti­vated va­ri­eties, in­clud­ing C. sinen­sis ‘Tre­goth­nan Hi­malayan Val­ley’, C. sinen­sis ‘Tre­goth­nan Coombe’ and C. sinen­sis ‘Tre­goth­nan Se­lec­tion’. Each va­ri­ety oc­cu­pies a dif­fer­ent gar­den or plan­ta­tion on the es­tate. Each plan­ta­tion is no big­ger than an acre, to re­duce the risk of spread­ing dis­ease. Each acre con­tains ap­prox­i­mately 1,000 tea bushes planted in rows ap­prox­i­mately 203ft (62m) apart. Tens of tons of tea are now pro­duced here ev­ery year. Not all of the 150 acres are fully pro­duc­tive. Bushes are first picked when they are three to four years old, with about 10 per cent of the bush plucked. At this age, a bush yields ap­prox­i­mately 50g of tea at its first pluck­ing. This in­creases to 100g in year six to seven when the bush reaches ma­tu­rity. Tea bushes can last for hun­dreds of years. Some in China are more than 400 years old, so there is very good rea­son to

be­lieve that the tea bushes at Tre­goth­nan will sur­vive for many more decades yet. Cut­tings are taken from healthy ma­ture plants to prop­a­gate new plants. Th­ese cut­tings are pot­ted and kept moist and warm in a green­house. When the cut­ting has firm roots and is pro­duc­ing new growth, it is re­pot­ted. Th­ese young plants will re­main in nurs­ery beds for ap­prox­i­mately 18 months when they are placed in the tea gar­den. Thou­sands of plants are prop­a­gated each year. Left to their own de­vices, Camel­lia sinen­sis plants will grow into a tree. How­ever, in cul­ti­va­tion, the bush is kept to waist height by prun­ing. This takes place at the end of the har­vest sea­son. Ev­ery seven years, the bushes go through a deep prune, where they are stripped back to their main branches to en­cour­age new growth and re­new the plants. The main har­vest sea­son lasts from April to Oc­to­ber. “There is no hard and fast rule on that,” says Jonathon. “We might have a re­ally mild Jan­uary or Fe­bru­ary and get our first leaves then. Since 2005, when we made our first sale, we’ve found that we can har­vest on al­most any day of the year.”

Pre­mium har­vest

In peak sea­son, up to 20 pick­ers will start pluck­ing at dawn. The young leaves are pinched from the bush and car­ried in bas­kets slung over the arm. The first rush of leaf buds com­ing from the tea bushes in early spring is known as first flush. Hav­ing stored a win­ter’s worth of nu­tri­ents, th­ese leaves are con­sid­ered the pre­mium har­vest and are used to make Tre­goth­nan’s Sin­gle Es­tate tea. De­pend­ing on the weather and the growth rate of new shoots, the plant is plucked again ap­prox­i­mately seven days later. This is re­ferred to as the pluck­ing round. As growth slows down to­wards the end of the sea­son, the pluck­ing round is grad­u­ally ex­tended to be­tween 7-14 days un­til the plant no longer pro­duces new growth. White tea is made from the bud of the bush, while green tea and black tea is from the first two leaves and bud. “The fi­nal type of tea is down to what you blend with the leaf and how the tea is pro­cessed,” says Jonathon. Af­ter pluck­ing, leaves are spread out onto wire mesh racks, ap­prox­i­mately 3ft by 6ft (91 x 183cm), in a steel walk-in con­tainer for sev­eral hours and left to wither. The pur­pose of with­er­ing is to re­duce the mois­ture con­tent in the leaves and make them pli­able, ready for fur­ther pro­cess­ing. Next, the with­ered leaves are placed in muslin cloths and rolled be­tween the hands, re­leas­ing juices and in­ten­si­fy­ing flavour. This takes place in the same room. The length of time this process takes de­pends on the batch size and the

type of tea be­ing pro­duced. It can take any­thing from a few min­utes to more than an hour. “The longer and more vig­or­ous the rolling, the stronger the re­sult­ing flavour,” ex­plains Jonathon. “We’re about to re­lease a very strong break­fast tea us­ing four dif­fer­ent camel­lias from across the es­tate that will go through a very abra­sive rolling process to cre­ate a re­ally rich, full-bod­ied black tea.” The third step is fer­men­ta­tion, or ox­i­di­s­a­tion, a process that started with the rolling. In this en­zy­matic process, oxy­gen re­acts with com­pounds in­side the leaves, af­fect­ing the tea’s flavour, aroma and colour. For small batches of tea, rolling will of­ten be enough to ox­i­dise the tea to the de­sired level. Larger batches re­main in the steel con­tain­ers for longer or are placed in a wooden cham­ber, where the tem­per­a­ture is kept be­low 30°C, and left to fur­ther fer­ment. The de­gree of ox­i­di­s­a­tion varies de­pend­ing on the de­sired re­sult. For Tre­goth­nan’s green tea, fer­men­ta­tion is re­placed by steam­ing to re­tain light­ness of taste and the green colour. Once the leaves have been ox­i­dised to the pre­ferred level, they are trans­ferred to a dry­ing room, an­other steel con­tainer, where they are dried us­ing heaters to makes the leaves shelf-sta­ble, ready to be sorted and packed. The whole bush-to-cup process takes just 36 hours.

A tea for ev­ery oc­ca­sion

“Our teas vary a great deal,” says Jonathon. “The del­i­cate crisp­ness of our green tea is very dif­fer­ent to our bold and malty Clas­sic tea. Some teas need to be light and re­fresh­ing, whereas oth­ers need to be more full-bod­ied.” Tre­goth­nan sells six teas: an ex­clu­sive Sin­gle Es­tate; a Clas­sic Blend, with leaves from Tre­goth­nan blended with leaves from As­sam; an Af­ter­noon Tea, a blend of Tre­goth­nan leaves and Dar­jeel­ing; Earl Grey, a blend of Cor­nish leaves and As­sam, in­fused with berg­amot oil; Great Bri­tish Tea, a stronger blend of Tre­goth­nan and As­sam; and a Green Tea, a blend of Tre­goth­nan and leaves from China.

“The lit­tle fields of green and gold Wherein my feet go lov­ingly And past the thatches and the wold The sea-grey mead­ows by the sea.” G K Ch­ester­ton, Green Leaves

The tea is pro­cessed and pack­aged on-site, apart from the pro­duc­tion of the pyra­mid tea pouch, which is out­sourced. The dis­tinc­tive boxes were de­signed in-house by Tre­goth­nan’s mar­ket­ing man­ager Bella Percy-Hughes. “We’ve also made use of the creative tal­ent pool that we have in Corn­wall,” says Jonathon. “We’ve had in­put from stu­dents at Ex­eter Univer­sity, based on the Corn­wall cam­pus, and the arts com­mu­nity in St Ives.”

Chal­lenges over­come

To­day, Tre­goth­nan is a flour­ish­ing tea plan­ta­tion, but it has faced chal­lenges. There were times when Jonathon feared that he had un­der­taken the im­pos­si­ble. An early crop was dec­i­mated by a freak gale. Rab­bits, which have left other camel­lia alone, have joined deer and pheas­ants to cause prob­lems, pluck­ing some va­ri­eties bare. “What I’ve learned is that when you try to do novel things, you get at­tacked by novel pests,” says Jonathon. Net­ting around the young tea plants helps to keep th­ese preda­tors at bay. Once the bushes reach a cer­tain size, they be­come more re­sis­tant. Jonathon’s per­se­ver­ance has paid off, and the fu­ture for the Tre­goth­nan es­tate’s tea is look­ing bright. “If we had given up af­ter the early hurdles, we’d never have all this,” he says. The aim is to con­tinue to fo­cus on qual­ity and sus­tain­abil­ity, and to still be a suc­cess­ful op­er­a­tion 100 years from now. As the sun­light strains through the mist onto the rows of tea plants, the feel­ing is one of quiet pride. Fi­nally, a great Bri­tish in­sti­tu­tion has found a home in Bri­tain.

“If you are cold, tea will warm you; if you are too heated, it will cool you; if you are de­pressed, it will cheer you; if you are ex­cited, it will calm you.” Wil­liam Ewart Glad­stone

The equable cli­mate mim­ics the high foothills of the Hi­malayas, sup­port­ing many species. Do­na­tions of plants from other tea grow­ers have al­lowed Jonathon to build up a large ge­netic base.

Leaves are best plucked at dawn when they are full of chloro­phyll and mois­ture af­ter rest­ing overnight.

The fin­gers are used to gen­tly pinch two soft young leaves and the bud of an un­furled leaf from the bush.

Heaters in the steel dry­ing room re­duce the mois­ture con­tent of the leaves to two to three per cent.

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