The slopes are steep, providing drainage for the regular rainfall. The soil is rich, and average temperatures in high summer are a comfortable 19°C. These are the perfect growing conditions for Darjeeling, the “champagne of teas”. But this is not West Bengal, but western England – Cornwall, to be precise. “People tend to associate the growing of tea with tropical regions,” says Jonathon Jones, the green fingers behind Tregothnan, the first commercial tea brand cultivated in Britain. “It’s that PG Tips image of women in the fields, plucking the plant and putting it in their baskets. But tea is increasingly grown where you might not expect it to be.”
While the big four – India, China, Sri Lanka and Kenya – remain the world’s leading exporters, smaller tea plantations are cropping up around the world. They are to be found in America, New Zealand, Hawaii, South Africa and the Azores. Tea is even being grown where they traditionally like a stronger tipple: the Wee Tea Company and Dalreoch Teas are both based in the Scottish Highlands.
The combined harvests of these smaller producers are never likely to challenge those of the mass-market producers, but they are introducing our palettes to what Jones calls “niche, single-estate teas”. Tregothnan’s, with its malty, muscatel flavours, sell out, with much of it going to big tea-drinking nations, including China and Russia.
Jones believes that this demand reflects a shift in attitudes towards tea; what was regarded as ubiquitous and chintzy is now being seen through a more discerning lens. The trick, he argues, will be not to rush it. “Hurrying the cultivation of these specialist teas would prove a barrier to their uptake, as with English wine,” he reckons. “It would add to the sense that such teas can’t be the real deal. You need time. And, like champagne, environment plays a major part in growing the best tea. But you don’t have to be in India to do it.”