When I men­tion my tea trees, most visi­tors look around for mānuka. But that is not what I mean.

NZ Gardener - - Contents -

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.

Tea hedge.

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