When I mention my tea trees, most visitors look around for mānuka. But that is not what I mean.
Sheryn Clothier grows tea.
The camellia is inconspicuous with its tiny white flowers but green, oolong and black tea are made from its leaves. Easily grown from cuttings, mine are pruned into a waist-high, evergreen hedge, the only formal structure in my forest garden. Though I obtained them from different sources, I cannot tell any difference and I presume they’re all
Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. There are two other main varietals of Camellia
sinensis: assamica and cambodiensis. Sinensis is the Chinese variety used for green, white and some black and oolong teas. Assamica from India is used for black tea and cambodiensis is usually used for breeding the thousands of cultivars worldwide to suit different climates and make different teas.
In the name of research, I went to the Zealong Tea Estate near Hamilton. They wouldn’t share secrets, but I did learn there was an art and science behind producing the perfect cuppa. There are as many complexities involved in tea as there are in making wine. And tea, I have learned, is not just tea. There are teas to go with milk, teas best without milk, teas to go with scones, teas best consumed after dinner, teas to soothe, teas to stimulate… you get the idea. The cultivar, the terroir and the processing are infinitely varied and complex, and a true connoisseur could expound on the differences.
But I am not a tea connoisseur. I don’t even drink tea (or coffee, which is just as well since Waikato frosts have managed to kill off several coffee plants). But tea grows easily in our Waikato climate, is simple to make and I do offer it to our guests and use it in my kombucha.
The Camellia sinensis cuttings were planted straight into the ground one winter.
They were then left to fight their way above the natural green manure (read: weeds), which they did successfully.
Five years later, they are flowering and seeding with little plants popping up underneath – I hate to weed them out but you only need so much tea.
As they grew, which they did rather speedily in average soil on a sunny bank, I pinched out the growing tips to encourage branching. I originally thought I would let them grow into a natural shape but after a couple of harvests I decided an all-oneheight hedge, like they do commercially, is definitely advantageous for ease of picking.
Picking tea is one of those wonderful jobs to do on a fine morning when you want to be outside but don’t want to work too hard.
It takes a bit of time but is not strenuous. I watched YouTube videos of ladies in straw hats whizzing along with a special little knife attached to their finger harvesting a bushel a minute. But I use my fingernails, watch the birdies and the cars go past, talk to my ducks and guinea fowl, and occasionally wander off to munch on a piece of fruit or play with the dog.
Tea picking is done three times a year: November for the first spring growth, a smaller harvest in January, and the third in March of the autumn flush.
In warmer climates, they can pick more often as it is the new growth – the very tips of the branch (hence PG Tips), only the first couple of leaves and the central, needlelike bud – that are needed.
You will find lots of confusing instructions on the internet, but they all involve the same basic processes: First, they wither, then ferment or oxidise the leaves to break down the green chlorophyll and develop flavour. This is the difference between green tea (no oxidising) and black tea which is fully fermented. Oolong tea is somewhere in the middle. Then the tea is fired or heated to stop further oxidising and dried for storage.
I harvest first thing on a warm sunny day and pick the tips straight onto a cloth laid over a tray.
I rub handfuls of the leaves together to crush them up and leave them out in the sun and the breeze.
By lunchtime, the leaves have wilted and I roll them up in the cloth and twist it tight, rolling and kneading it to crush the leaves. Unroll, mix up the leaves and repeat three or four times, rolling and crushing each time for about three to four minutes.
Spread the leaves out on half of the cloth, fold the other half over the top and leave out in a warm, shady place for another three to four hours to oxidise.
When cooking dinner, transfer the leaves onto a large baking tray and bake at 100°C for five minutes to stop the oxidisation. Then reduce the temperature to 60°C until the leaves are dry enough for storage. Leave in the oven to cool and put into storage jars the following morning.
Then toddle along to Zealong for an educational tea tour to learn how to serve and savour your tea with the reverence it deserves.