“As a nation of tea drinkers, we have allowed ourselves to be narrowed down.” Jonathon Jones, commercial and garden director for the Tregothnan Estate, is not wrong.
Despite being armed with the knowledge that Teapigs is actually owned by Tetley and one of the nation’s favourite brews, PG Tips, is part of the multinational behemoth Unilever, the majority of us are downing mass-produced cuppas without a second thought on a daily basis.
For a nation world famous for its tea drinking, it makes little sense. If, like Shayne House, one of the founders of The Tea Appreciation Society, you believe that: “Tea is like wine,” then the equivalent would be to drink only red wine that is Merlot, or whites that are only Chardonnay.
A day with Jonathon at the UK’s only tea-producing estate and Cassie Liveridge, researching for her tea book about growing and preparing your own tea, exposes our tea habits to be in serious need of reform. Just as coffee is moving away from high street mono-nationals towards smaller independents, so it is high time for tea time to do the same. And if you think you’re off-the-hook simply because you spurn builder’s for its more aristocratic incarnations such as Earl Grey, think again – big companies use synthetic flavouring whereas Tregothnan sources citrus bergamia oil direct from Puglia.
You don’t have to go as far as planting your own tea bushes to harvest your own morning cuppa, but you could. As Jonathon explains, “At Tregothnan, you can pick tea in December, it potentially grows all year round, the bushes love it here.”
Less than a decade ago, witnessing the success of plants native to Darjeeling such as magnolia campbellii growing in the grounds, the estate planted its first tea bushes. Tregothnan single-estate tea now sells for an impressive £1,500 a kilogram and generates just over a million pounds worth of tea every year, exporting to Japan and China, as well as supplying Claridge’s, Fortnum and Mason and The Savoy Hotel, who unusually demand fresh leaves.
Tea at Tregothnan however, is not all about the high-end. Yes it’s expensive but only if compared to mass market brands. On average, we pay one or two pence a cup while a Cornish brew would cost you up to 18 pence. Not a large financial sacrifice for the quality and freshness of a product that comes from just outside of Truro rather than from halfway around the globe.
Yes there is a certain degree of snobbery surrounding loose leaf or bags, but the simple fact remains that tea tastes better when not in a ‘stocking’, as Jonathon describes tea bags. He goes on, “We don’t like tea bags and don’t want to be making them. We want the world to drink loose tea but we have to be realistic.”
Just as the slow realisation that instant coffee is merely a shadow of its former self has meant more cafetières and espresso makers in the home, so it is time that a nation of tea aficionados moved away from the bag and into the tea ball – a simple little round sieve that you fill with loose tea and treat in exactly the same way as a tea bag.
Another gap in the market is men. Tea rooms are unfortunately feminine, likely to be vintage and probably contain lots of lace. “You don’t see men taking each other out for tea,” says Jonathon, “we are missing out on a huge market.” The idea is for Tregothnan to set up shop on the high street, with a less feminine version of tea shops and where men will feel less compromised. He has a point: in Jamaica, bush teas are associated with male virility and the South American version – mate – is drunk out of a gourd with a metal straw, a far cry from our very own pinky raising ritual.