The clouds open and the rain starts to fall, we take shelter under a large tree. One that we later find out has travelled all the way from Chile and is now thought to be larger than any left in the wild. Behind us in the deer park is a whole grove of monkey puzzle trees from the Andes and in front of us, and the reason for our visit, lie rows and rows of camellia bushes, better known as tea.
We meet Jonathon Jones, MD at Tregothnan in Cornwall. Now when you think of tea plantations, England certainly isn’t the first place that springs to mind. But as it turns out, the area’s fertile soil and unique micro climate is just perfect for these types of bushes. We are seven miles inland near to the River Fal, a deep saltwater creek that brings in the benefit of the Gulf of Mexico’s warm current, which also helps winter temperatures stay warm, and is one of the many reasons this location is perfect for growing tea. Jonathon tells us, “The area actually mimics the temperatures of Darjeeling in North India where tea has been grown for over two hundred years.”
The land is owned by Lord and Lady Falmouth and it has been in their family since 1334. Jonathon says, “The family have always been interested in collecting rare things; when you look around us, there are plants, bushes and trees from all over the world.” He started working for Lord and Lady Falmouth as head gardener when he was twenty-six. “I’d trained in botany and horticulture and did a scholarship in Japan. I was still relatively young to be head gardener but I jumped at the chance.” Shortly after he started, Lady Falmouth handed over the reins to her son Evelyn, who had big plans for the gardens. He sent Jonathon all over the world looking for specific trees and plants. He travelled through the Amazonian jungles, hiked in the Andes, took numerous Asian trips and motor-biked through the Himalayas searching for rare species. You could say that he was Indiana Jones of the horticultural world.
This adventurous spirit and innovative approach to gardening is the reason they have a global variety of exciting things growing, like the dinosaur tree from the Blue Mountains, north of Sydney, which was only found in 1994, the manuka bushes that allow them to sell UK manuka honey, and of course the tea bushes. They were first planted in 1999 and weren’t very successful. But Jonathon knew it was worth trialling. So he completed a Nuffield scholarship in commercial tea growing, and started to travel around the world again to find the best practices. Two years later, Tregothnan got a lot more serious, they scaled up and now have over thirty varieties of tea from all over the world.
True tea can only come from the camellia bush and these bushes can take five years to reach maturity, but only about fifty per cent of them will make it to the full five years. However, once they are fully established they can last for well over four hundred years. That is a lot of tea to harvest. Jonathon says, “It’s taken a while but this year we should be fully self-sufficient. We can now look after the whole process, from the leaf to bag.” Every year the team will pluck, wither, roll, dry and bag the leaves. The strength and flavour of the tea is all down to the oxidation, after the rolling process natural oxidation occurs. If you want green tea, then you would stop the oxidation early and dry the leaves straight away. If, however, you wanted a black tea, then you would let the leaves oxidise for a long time before drying. Within this scale is a whole myriad of different teas.
The gardens aren’t open to the public so to be able to see rare species from all over the world growing in one spot, perfectly looked after by a highly-skilled team of gardening experts, is a real treat. The Falmouth family’s adventurous spirit, coupled with Jonathon’s unwavering vision and the focus of the wider team, has allowed, what was initially an idea, to grow into a very successful and truly English tea that is drunk and respected the world over.