Tea is a ritual that brings us together. Whether it’s a comforting cuppa after you come in from the rain or setting the world to rights over a pot of tea with a friend, it gives us a chance to pause.
Even the familiar routine of popping on the kettle or picking out our favourite mug can provide us with an opportunity for calm and contemplation. Our love of the warming drink in all its many varieties is well documented and is now celebrated every year on National Tea Day, 21st April.
As a self-confessed tea addict, I jumped at the chance to visit Tregothnan Estate in Cornwall. Usually, when we talk about tea-growing areas, we picture Darjeeling, Assam and Ceylon rather than sleepy Cornish valleys, but there’s been tea growing here since 1999.
The mild and, frankly, drizzly climate lends itself well to vineyards, and is also perfect for tea. Visiting Tregothnan means straying from the main roads and venturing down winding, single-track lanes lined with bowed trees to reach the estate of the Boscawen family (which might sound familiar if you’re a fan of Poldark).
The sprawling lands on the banks of the River Fal are packed with exotic plants imported over centuries – in particular, there’s a large collection of camellias.
In the late 1990s, head gardener Jonathon Jones began to wonder if another kind of camellia might do well here – camellia sinensis: a species of evergreen shrub or small tree whose leaves and leaf buds are used to produce tea. Previous attempts had been made to grow tea in the UK, but never successfully.
During the Second World War, plans to produce British tea were put in place, as Churchill believed (quite rightly, many of us might agree) that a good cuppa was vital for the country’s morale – he was worried about what would happen if the supply was cut off. So, he decided that the South West would need to be covered in tea plants in order to meet the demand.
Although Churchill’s plans never came into fruition, more than 70 years later Jonathon’s efforts have been a success and today the estate covers 150 acres. Tregothnan’s sheltered aspect means that it has its own microclimate, which helps the tea plants to flourish. It’s usually so warm that the tea can be harvested for 11 months of the year.
Bella Percy-Hughes, my guide, leads me to a slope covered in rows of glossy tea plants in the heart of the estate gardens. It’s so quiet here – the only sound is the rush of the wind in the trees. It’s incredibly peaceful. The plantation is overlooked by a Chinese pagoda nestled among rhododendrons, adding to the sense that I’m in another world.
The plantation is split into small pockets of land to protect the precious crop from disease, but the biggest threat comes from a neighbouring deer farm. “They really love camellia leaves – I think they get a bit of a buzz from it,” Bella says. The deer are prepared to leap over a 6-foot fence to get to the tasty tea. I can totally relate – I feel much the same when someone gets between me and the kettle first thing in the morning.
When Jonathon started the tea project, they received samples of tea bushes from all over the world to try out, including the delightfully named ‘Vietnamese sixpack’. “The leaves look like abdominal muscles,” Bella explains. The gardeners spend a lot of time experimenting with different teas and now Tregothnan’s breakfast blend contains 38 different varieties.
Bella shows me how to pick the leaves, choosing only the light green leaves at the tip of each plant. The youngest, most delicate tips are harvested to make highly prized white tea.
To turn the green leaves into black tea, they need to be oxidised. This process can be as simple as rolling the fresh leaves between your hands, but some of the gardeners here like to keep a handful of tea in their pockets – the friction caused by movement is enough to bruise the leaves.
The rest of the process is pleasingly small-scale – after picking, the tea is simply taken to sheds to be dried out before it’s ready to be blended and bagged.
As well as tending the tea plants, Tregothnan’s gardeners also care for the ancient estate, which is home to many old and exotic plants. Tregothnan lies just a few miles from the historic port of Falmouth. Over the centuries, plants would arrive at Falmouth and be brought to the estate, resulting in a fascinating array of specimens that would keep a botanist happy for weeks. Highlights include the blossoming camellia maze and an incredibly rare pine tree. Tea planting is just part of a long tradition of experimentation here.
Of course, no trip to the estate would be complete without a tea tasting. Tregothnan make a surprising variety of blends here, along with fruit infusions. I’m particularly excited to hear that there are plans to produce their very own matcha – in 2017, the estate created the world’s first winter matcha, thanks to the warm conditions.
There’s fragrant black breakfast tea, classic Earl Grey, and a comforting Manuka tea that’s made not with honey, but with the leaves of the Manuka plant. It’s golden and refreshing – I can almost feel it doing me good. My personal favourite was Manuka-smoked Earl Grey, made especially for Eurostar and created with Raymond Blanc. I keep coming back to this one for another sip.
Inspired by this unusual combination of flavours, I looked up how to add your own twists to your tea at home. Spices such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom can give tea soothing chai taste (I highly recommend the turmeric chai tea recipe from our sister title Olive), while dried fruit can add a little zing to your cup. You can blend your beverage with other plants, too, to add flavour and fragrance – dried rose and jasmine are both full of heady, calming aromas and pair perfectly with tea.
Leaving Tregothnan I felt refreshed and soothed by its quiet solitude. Now, as I wait for the kettle to boil or take a few moments to relish in a warming brew, I appreciate every stage of the journey that my tea has made to reach my cup.
To visit the estate you’ll need to arrange a (very popular) private tour or visit on one of Tregothnan’s open days. As a result, you’re likely to see the estate at its best – quiet and enchanting. Tregothnan also has its own traditional cottages overlooking the river for visitors who want to stay in a peaceful haven and start their day with a tea plantation right on their doorstep – it might just be the best morning cuppa you ever have.
Tea destinations around the world
Fancy planning your own tea trail? Here are a few destinations to add to your list.
If you’re looking to explore the real tea heartlands in India, we recommend heading to Darjeeling in West Bengal. Darjeeling tea is known for its light colour and almost floral scent and described as the champagne of teas.
You could also head to Assam in North-East India, with its own rich, full-bodied tea, which you’ll often find in strong breakfast blends. Other beautiful tea producing areas in India include the Nilgiri mountains in Tamil Nadu in the south and the region of Sikkim in the Eastern Himalayas.
In China, tea plantations are found mainly in the south of the country. Tourists often travel to Langjing in Hangzhou, which grows some of China’s finest green tea. It’s also home to the China National Tea Museum (perfect for tea lovers!).
If you’re a fan of oolong, then make for Fuijan province where you can drink tea picked by the Nine Twists River. For fermented and aged pu’er (also known as pu-erh) tea, head for Southern Yunnan.
Japan has a rich history of tea growing and the Kyoto Obubu tea farms in Wazuka (obubutea.com) are a popular destination for those wishing to explore Japanese tea culture and experience a tea ceremony. Uji, Japan’s second-biggest tea region, is also a mecca for tea fans – visit in May when the first leaves of the season are picked.
How to pick tea leaves
Want to see exactly how to pick the perfect tea leaves? We made sure to get Bella to show us how before leaving the Tregothnan Estate. Watch the video.