Time For Tea

TOAST explores the nation's favourite pastime with Tregothnan

With National Afternoon Tea Week on the horizon, Emma J Page heads to Tregothnan, Britain’s only tea plantation, to find out why the humble brew remains the nation’s favourite pick-me-up

Brits have been turning to the tealeaf for more than 500 years – in times of crisis and celebration nothing hits the spot like a cuppa, especially if it’s part of that beguiling afternoon ritual that involves delicate finger sandwiches and still-warm scones. Winston Churchill knew its value as a morale booster: it’s said that at the outbreak of World War II, he contemplated harvesting tea in the UK to fuel British forces. Time constraints saw those plans fall by the wayside, but more than half a century later, in a picturesque part of Cornwall, the idea was resurrected thanks to the vision of The Honourable Evelyn Boscawen and his garden director Jonathon Jones.

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From Bush to Brew 

Tregothnan, near Truro, home to the Boscawen family since 1334, has long been a working estate with a favourable microclimate that has nurtured camellias, rhododendrons and magnolias for centuries. But it was little more than a decade ago that Jonathon was first inspired to grow tea from the Camellia Sinensis plant, usually better suited to the moderate climate of Northern India. Today the estate harvests around ten tonnes of tea per year, selling fourteen varieties online and to luxury hotels and retailers, including Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason and Waitrose.

In the beginning, a small team, headed up by Jonathon, experienced its fair share of challenges. Waking up to discover that gale-force winds had blown much of the first crop into the adjoining deer park was an especially sobering setback. But in 2005, five years after the tea bushes were established, the estate sold its very first harvest to Fortnum & Mason and it hasn’t looked back since.

Fifteen years ago, the very idea of growing tea in this country was laughable to many experts,’ reflects Jonathon. ‘But in fact there are several similarities between the estate and Darjeeling in India. We have a comparable climate, acidic soil, good rainfall and a lack of frost so we knew we could make a go of it.’

The estate currently grows around 150 acres of Camellia Sinensis, the only plant that produces both black and green teas. As well as an exclusive Single Estate, there are now five blends of black tea and a wide range of infusions, including Eucalyptus, Manuka, Red Berry and Lemon Verbana. And Jonathon doesn’t underestimate the significance of Britain’s great tea drinking tradition.

‘It’s been an important ritual for hundreds of years,’ he says. ‘Brits love the ceremony that drinking tea offers, from a strong breakfast brew paired with toast and jam, to a refreshing Darjeeling served with scones and cream. It’s become a social occasion.’

Tea Plucking

Roll Up

Every step of the tea harvesting process takes place on the estate. It is made in five steps over 36 hours and involves plucking, withering, rolling, oxidising and drying. ‘We handpick the first flush at dawn, with just the top two leaves and the bud taken from every branch of the bush,’ explains Jonathon. ‘The leaves are laid onto bamboo or straw mats in a warm, dry area to allow gentle withering. Rolling is the next crucial stage. Traditionally performed by hand in a circular movement between the palms, the more intense the rolling, the stronger the resulting flavour.’

Next comes oxidisation, which involves spreading the rolled leaves on a flat surface and keeping them at a controlled temperature. As the natural liquids in the cells interact, the colour changes from green to brown. ‘For green tea, we replace this stage with steaming, to retain the natural green colour,’ says Jonathon. ‘The final stage is to dry the leaves to 2% moisture. For small quantities of tea, a warming oven is ideal for this. Once the leaves have reduced to a darkened crisp crunchy state, they are ready for drinking.’

The Taste Test 

But when it comes to getting it just right, which brew is best? Different occasions demand different teas, whether you’re planning a classic afternoon tea, Sunday brunch with friends, or the ideal after-supper restorative. And centuries of refining our tea-drinking rituals have produced some timeless combinations. Jonathon recommends strong, bold blends for breakfast, such as classic English Breakfast or Tregothnan’s Great British, which is blended with Assam ‘for the get-up-and-go-kick that you need in the morning.’ A medium strength brew is perfect for any time of the day, while a gentle tea such as Earl Grey made with natural Bergamot oil, suits afternoon teatime treats. For after dinner, a refreshing peppermint or chamomile can help to aid digestion and settle the stomach. For a gathering such as a baby shower, a fruity caffeine-free infusion is the perfect choice. And if you’re feeling under the weather? ‘Try a cup of Echinacea, suggests Jonathon. ‘It’s an ideal pick-me-up and has excellent immune-boosting qualities.’

Tregothnan Tea

All in the Detail 

Of course tea-drinking is elevated from the everyday to the sublime if you have the right tableware and accoutrements. Jonathon recommends a ‘tea for two’ sized pot with an infuser basket, leaving it for a few minutes to brew. Making time to choose elegant accessories all adds to the experience. For classic style, choose silver plated teaware. Fortnum & Mason’s Long Handled Tea Strainer, £38, has an old-school Art Deco shape, while you’ll find that the simple style of its Salam Tea Pot in White, £70, is replicated in chic bistros all over Paris. For a laidback look, Astier de Villatte’s glazed black terracotta ceramics are worthy investment pieces – its rustic cups and mugs are truly one of a kind. For delicate tea spoons and pastry forks, try the Knot collection at Culinary Concepts.

Astier DE Villattes Edited 1


And remember that tea is an extremely versatile beverage. ‘We’ve just created two new blends with the intention of serving them iced at summer lunches and barbeques, says Jonathon. ‘They are light and exotic with hints of mint, orange and honey and pair brilliantly with grilled meats.’ It just goes to show that this nation’s love affair with the humble tealeaf is far from over.

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Jonathon's Top Tips For The Perfect Cup of Tea

  • Choose: Opt for a tea that suits the time of day and the occasion
  • Infuse:  Do let your tea brew for at least 3-4 minutes
  • Hot NOT Boiling:  Water should be 90 degrees for black tea and 80 degrees for green
  • Use a Water Filter:  If you live in a hard water area, it will make all the difference to the taste of the tea
  • Add Milk AFTER Pouring: The tea needs to infuse in water first

Posted in Spotlight

by Emma J Page
on on 09 August 2016

  afternoon tea, tea

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