As Brits, we love a brew. But where did it all start?
Well, the British East India Company had a monopoly over the tea industry in England in the seventeenth century and our love for tea grew from there. You might even say that the tea plant is the most popular plant on the planet, with most of us using the leaves for our cuppa on average three times a day! And it’s also the second most popular drink, after water. So let’s look at how you can grow at home for delicious recipes, like the one at the bottom of this page…
The plant causing the stir is called the Camellia sinensis, which is what’s harvested to make a cup of char, and the Chinese variety ‘Sinensis’ was brought to Britain in 1664. Over the years, we’ve become accustomed to adding milk and sugar to our cup to sweeten the taste, but many cultures take their tea differently. In India, for instance, you would add spices to make what is known as a ‘Masala chai’.
Here in Britain, 95 per cent of us favour black teas, but it’s important to understand that whether your tea tipple is black, green, or white, it all comes from the same leaf and only the preparation differs.
Black tea, for instance, is left to oxidise for longer before drying—think of a banana skin left out in the air. The same goes for some teas which have their cells ruptured by hand to encourage oxidisation.
A healthy hit
Scientific data now supports the idea that green tea has a calming effect on bacterial infections through a unique set of compounds called ‘catechins’. These compounds also possess anti-angiogenesis activity towards the prevention and treatment of various forms of cancer and may reduce cholesterol levels in the blood, whilst the amino acid ‘l-theanine’ in green tea is thought to reduce stress.
It’s thought that as soon as the atoms oxidise the health benefits lessen, so the healthiest options are those that are fresher—like white teas. Although this difference is incremental, research confirms that green tea does contain more catechins than oxidised black tea.
Grow in the know
Tea plants usually grow in high altitudes but can be grown quite comfortably in Britain, given the right growing conditions. In fact, there are two tea plantations operating in Britain today! These plants like a partially-shaded spot and are ericaceous (acid-loving). Keep them in a well-drained pot that’s top-dressed with shredded bark or leaf mould. During winter, protect container-grown specimens with bubble wrap or hessian. You won’t harvest until the plant is mature enough (over a metre in height) but you can buy established tea plants at most online garden retailers to get a jump start.
With your plant ripe for the plucking, in spring, you can start picking the uppermost two leaves and bud on each stem. To make a green brew, pluck the leaves and pat them dry, leaving them in a shady place to dry for a few hours. Place them on a baking tray in the oven at 120°c for 20 minutes and then steep in 80°c water to taste—this is important to ensure you don’t burn the leaves and make them taste bitter. Preparing black tea is a similar process, but you roll and crush the leaves by hand until they bruise (darken) and then they’re left for 2-3 days before putting them in the oven.
Herbs the word
Herbal teas can be grown at home too but, as they don’t contain the Camellia sinensis leaf, these aren’t technically “tea” and are instead called “tisanes”. As such, they hold different health properties, but are also lower in caffeine.
You can grow chamomile, mint, verbena, fennel, hibiscus sabdariffa, lavender and elderflower to make infusions or add them to your teas for flavour. Each herb has its own health benefits and growing/harvesting needs, but with a little effort, you can have a fully productive tea garden.
Why not treat your taste buds to teas and tisanes for a huge variety of medicinal and culinary uses.
When it comes to the quintessentially British love of a hot cuppa, there’s nothing quite like cultivating your own at home, so get growing to brew up a storm this year.