I became hooked on the tea production process when I visited India a couple of years ago. The beauty of the hillside estates in Darjeeling, set against the backdrop of the Himalayas is breathtaking, and in the flat fields of Assam, the vibrant saris of the female tea pickers lift the green landscape, with pepper plants trained up trees sitting alongside the tea bushes.
Timothy d’Offay at Postcard Teas in Dering St London (and much written about previously) has continued my education in this ancient craft, introducing me to teas from one acre estates in China and Japan where small amounts are produced just for family and friends.
In China, Japan, India or the UK, the conversations and debates are similar: quality versus quantity, distribution and markets. Small producers all over the world are passionate about what they do, and Jonathan Jones, Garden Director at Lord Falmouth’s beautiful 20,000 acre estate at Tregothnan in Cornwall is no exception. A two hour tour around a small part of the property to look at the tea plantations had me reeling with information from his enthusiam for all the trees, plants and projects. Landowners with large estates like this often have to make practical decisions about how to generate income. Some will open to the public, via the National Trust, and have to cope with what Jonathan called the three “T”s (toilets, teas and thieves). Another alternative is to make the estate productive.
This option has become a practical possibility in the last 15 years in the UK with champions of small producers like Henrietta Green, doyenne of Farmers’ Markets and London’s Borough Market, and the Farrand family who run the Guild of Fine Food and Great Taste Awards. These people have encouraged a market for niche producers and independent retailers to flourish alongside supermarkets, and supermarkets themselves have benefited from new sources of supply.
The climate in south Cornwall has always been special. Palm trees flourish along the coast and it is not known as the Cornish Riviera for nothing. Two hundred years ago the first camellias were grown outside at Tregothnan, and so it seemed logical to try Camellia Sinensis, which is the shrub from which tea is produced. In 2000 the first shrubs were planted and by 2005 the tea was ready for picking. It now sells to the top end of retailing and hotels, and even exports to China, India and Japan! The infusions include manuka, myrtle and echinacea, and Henrietta Lovell who knows a thing about tea with her Rare Tea Company claims the Tregothnan dried mint is second to none. The Tregothnan brand has gone from strength to strength, sells its products online including a Cornish Cream Tea in which the clotted cream, jam made from Kea plums unique to Tregothnan and, of course the tea, are all produced from the estate.
So what next for this energetic young team? On my way around I was introduced to the head gardener, Neil Bennett, who was in the process of creating a South American garden. With the effects of climate change, who knows if in 20 years time, the air of the Tregothnan might also be perfumed by the smell of coffee plants?