As the coffee culture sweeping the nation’s high streets shows no let-up, aficionados of the nation’s best-loved drink could be forgiven for feeling a little overlooked
Latte, ristretto and machiato have entered the English language as acceptable ways to order a coffee, while the more subtle aromatic notes of tea have taken a back seat… until now.
Grantors Tregothnan are working on plans to change all that to make afternoon tea “more celebrated” with a string of tea rooms to rival the post-war Lyons phenomenon.
Although the idea is still in its infancy, the Cornish estate has created a concept tea room that could be rolled out around the country to ensure the genius who first poured hot water over the dried leaves of an evergreen shrub almost 5,000 years ago is remembered each time we slurp the cure-all for shock, stress, tiredness and even hangovers.
Marketing Officer Bella Percy-Hughes said: “Our Tea Bars are part of a longer term plan because we feel the national drink should be more celebrated. We don’t go out for tea like we do coffee. That’s a shame and something we’d like to change.
“We’ve teamed up with an excellent artisan coffee roaster in the UK that prides itself on the provenance of its products. We are testing prestigious locations which we think will be a perfect start to the franchise so watch this space.”
Tregothnan’s partners are currently serving its tea at high profile events like Goodwood, the Windsor Races and Silverstone, from its tea tram and tea trike pop-up tea shops.
A cuppa, brew or drop of Rosy Lee, tea is now pretty much the answer to everything and the mainstay of life on our small island, whether it’s grey and overcast or uncharacteristically hot. With the big producers’ names and television ads of chimps shifting pianos a part of the nation’s identity, it’s British to the core.
Or is it? Tea originated in China and was only brought to Europe by the Dutch in 1609. It would be another half a century before diarist Samuel Pepys tried and loved it in a London coffee shop.
Despite its Oriental roots and necessity for a tropical climate, Tregothnan Estates are now 16 years into a groundbreaking and startlingly successful venture to create the most British tea in history.
Head gardener Jonathon Jones put the then fantastical suggestion of a tea plantation to The Hon Evelyn Boscawen, the latest in the family line who have owned a sprawling estate near Truro since 1334, and were the first to import the Camellia sinensis shrub into Britain 200 years ago.
“I’d bring back cuttings from wherever I went… leaving my clothes behind to make room for them”
Jonathon, now the MD, travelled to plantations around the world to learn why things went wrong. When he noticed that a Magnolia tree planted in the acidic soil and moist, humid air north of the River Fal estuary was flowering earlier than one in Indian tea capital Darjeeling, he knew he was on to something.
“People said it would have been done before in England if it could be, but we weren’t deterred,” he said: “I’d bring back cuttings from wherever I went, sometimes leaving my clothes behind to make room for them.”
The 100-acre plantation silenced its critics with a sip of its first aromatic taste of success, five years after planting the first evergreen – the usual growing rate – and is now propagating 6,000 new bushes a year, all in small tranches as an insurance against damage and disease.
“There’s a special aura about the place and that’s enhanced by the product that’s produced here”
Tregothnan’s rolling slopes and tree, bush and palm-lined avenues are adorned with a near constant riot of 400,000 red and pink flowering Camellia bushes, alongside giant rhododendrons, bluebells and wild primroses, redolent of a scene from Alice in Wonderland.
“There’s definitely a special aura about the place and that’s enhanced by the product that’s produced here. Tea has an almost mystical quality and everyone who comes here says the place has a spiritual feel to it,” said Bella.
More than 30 different varieties of tea and infusion are grown from tens of thousands of plants, which flourish in a microclimate almost identical to that enjoyed at the nearby Lost Gardens of Heligan.
They include Earl Grey, named after 19th century prime minister and relative Charles Grey, and a single estate tea that will set you back a cool £187 for 125g at Fortnum & Mason.
An army of pickers works between March and October, plucking the tip and bud for the delicate white tea and the lower leaves for black and green tea, which are then rolled to begin the oxidizing process before drying. The total process from picking to teapot takes little over 36 hours.
Bella said: “The single estate is our premium tea because it’s pure and not blended with anything else, but in others, such as the English Breakfast, we have to use a percentage of Assam to get the flavour right. None of our teas have added tannins, which are commonly used to darken the colour in most other teas.”
The estate boasts Red Berry, Echinacea and Manuka – Tregothnan is the only place outside New Zealand with bushes to create the honey infusion – among its catalogue and contributes a small but uniquely English-grown 10 of the planet’s three-million-tonne harvest.
Its bestselling Classic tea is now taken by Waitrose, high-end hotel chains and is a popular pre-flight purchase for international travellers at airports.
“Awareness that the English can grow as well as drink the revitalising brew… would suggest this is more than just a flash in the pan”
“Despite the fact that tea originated in China and spread to Japan, it is still strongly associated with England, so it’s something of a surprise that until Tregothnan started 16 years ago, there was not a single plantation here,” said Bella.
“Now we’re exporting tea around the world and even to China, after a British government trade visit opened links with traders there and our tea featured in a documentary seen by 600 million viewers.”
Jonathon has encountered difficulties along the way as the cynics suggested he would. But the combination of a robust crop and a growing awareness that the English can grow as well as drink the revitalising brew we’ve adopted as our own would suggest this is more than just a flash in the pan.
We’ll drink to that!
Pictures courtesy of Roy Kilcullen. Visit his website here