Cornish Tea - A Brew for Connoisseurs

It's one of the most unlikely of speciality products, but Cornish tea (like English wine) is surprisingly good - with fans as far afield as Shanghai. Read my account of a visit to the Tregothnan Estate where this fine Cornish tea is grown.

Brewing up in Cornwall

It’s morning when I reach the tea garden and traces of mist still linger over the plantation.  The air’s fresh, and everything is silent until the eerie cry of a bird rises from the river below.  I watch as a hunched figure moves quietly among the neatly clipped tea bushes, nimbly plucking their glossy leaves - as countless pickers have done for centuries.  It is a wonderfully timeless scene. But this isn’t Darjeeling or Assam – I’m in England, Cornwall to be precise, and this is Britain’s first commercial tea garden.

The tea is being grown at Tregothnan, an estate tucked away at the head of the Fal estuary, just a 30 minute drive from the idyllic fishing village of St Mawes. The tea plucker is Jonathon Jones, the estate’s manager - who’s demonstrating the correct way to harvest the plant: “You only nip out the bud and the top two leaves from each sprig. The shoots then re-grow quickly, so we can pluck the tea every 4 to 6 weeks, from April to October.” The food scene in Cornwall has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, and imaginative chefs are making good use of the county’s freshly caught seafood, organic vegetables and local cheeses.  Tregothnan tea is at the forefront of this foodie revolution.

The tea plant is a special type of Camellia - Camellia sinensis since you ask. Jonathon, a trained horticulturalist, realised it would grow well at Tregothnan soon after he started working there.  “Conditions in this corner of Cornwall are very similar to Darjeeling.  The climate’s mild and we get few frosts. This was also the first place in Britain to grow camellias out of doors, over 200 years ago, so I was sure we could succeed.”

The Tregothnan Estate

Tregothnan has been the home of Lord Falmouth’s family since 1335 and it seems appropriate that the current resident, the Hon Evelyn Boscawen, is a descendant of Earl Grey (yes, that Earl Grey). The estate’s been at the forefront of horticulture for centuries. Over the next few years they plan to set up the world’s only International Tea Centre in Cornwall, with tea gardens, tastings, displays and galleries.  The Boscawen family often funded the expeditions of Victorian plant hunters and continue that tradition today - Jonathan regularly makes research trips to other tea growing countries.  The 100 acres of garden contains many unusual species, including a Dinosaur tree from Australia, one of the oldest and rarest trees in the world.  You can see it if you come on a private garden tour – which always finishes with scones, clotted cream and, of course, Tregothnan tea, in the summer house.

It took several years to establish the plants on the estate, but in 2005 the first tea was ready for sale – and snapped up by Fortnum and Mason.  “We can do everything on site,” says Jonathon, as he leads me inside for a tasting.  “We make both green and black tea.”  I’d always thought that these were produced from different plants, but apparently it’s the way the leaves are processed that makes the difference. “If we’re making black tea, the withered leaves are rolled, broken up and allowed to oxidise and darken,” he explains. “With green tea the leaves are steamed rather than oxidised, so they retain their colour.” After they’ve dried, some of the leaves are blended, others are kept aside for the limited edition Single Estate tea – a pricey connoisseurs’ edition.

Tea Tasting in Cornwall

Jonathon shows me little bowls of different teas. The supermarket brand is fine, dull and powdery – it looks uncomfortably similar to floor sweepings - while the Tregothnan tea is a delicate colour and more recognisable as a broken leaf.  But it’s the taste that matters, and I’m surprised at the difference.  We sip Single Estate tea first, which is similar to a green tea but golden, and smoother tasting.  I’m slightly distracted by the thought that each mouthful must cost a fortune, and concentrate better when we try the Classic and Afternoon blends.  These start at £3.99 for a (rather small) packet of tea bags, and are more delicate and less acidic than the brews I’m used to. It’s rather like the difference between a fine wine and cheap plonk. I take some home - though at those prices I won’t be adding 6 sugars and serving it to builders.

If you'd like to see Jonathon talking about the Cornish tea plantation at Tregothnan, take a look at the film clip below.

Now go from Cornish Tea to a Culinary Tour of Herefordshire.