It floored me a little when I actually thought about it. Eleven years of all things tea and I had yet to visit an actual garden. They remained just images and visions – pictures that I have pored over for what seems like decades. Those pristine gardens of Japan where Fuji shimmers in the foreground; Darjeelings and Assams that rim the mountain slopes of the Himalayas; and Ceylon where the land rises up from the sea to an apex in the south center.
I’ve never been to any of these places, but their imagery is firmly implanted in my brain. I am certain though that one day I will visit the great tea-growing regions of the world, and there I will enhance and embrace all those old (and new) similes.
Interestingly though, my path towards this larger journey began this past September right here in North America – I kid you not. Way down in a little corner of South Carolina – spread over about 260 acres – is a snippet of what transpires in those other faraway lands. Here, about 40 minutes south of Charleston, is the home of American Classic Tea at the Charleston Tea Plantation.
We toured the garden as a group from this past series of Specialty Tea Institute courses, which were being held in Charleston. One of the first things I noticed was how flat the plantation was. It spread out horizontally over vast cultivated cubes, all pruned to the optimum height. Different varietals planted side-by-side, enabling top blends to start right at the picking level.
The lushness of the plantation was also striking. The bushes were dense and healthy. No chemical sprays are used at the garden and this was clearly evident in the incredible number of insects that call the garden their home. Spiders almost the size of my palm had spun huge traps on trees rimming the cubes. You could actually detect tea aromas wafting off the camellia bushes. It was fresh and entirely familiar.
When I finally got the chance to walk over and wrap my hand around the two live leaves and a bud, it was a cathartic moment. Numerous pictures started scrolling through my head, image after image. Here it was in front of me, propagating – crooning to the sun. I leaned in to visually dissect the new leaves. I saw the white down on the unopened bud. The smooth yellowish fuzz summoned a taste memory. I could feel my palate water slightly. I was feeling quite connected and fully absorbed in the moment. Here was my first intervention.
Our tour took us inside to the production facility. When you set foot inside the gift shop and reception area, your senses are immediately overwhelmed with the aroma of tea. The air is thick and fragrant. I inadvertently broke into a huge grin; there was no mistaking the smell of fresh tea leaves. It was reminiscent of just-poured green tea and the aroma of rich Assam leaves directly after steeping.
Just inside the production facility behind large panes of glass was the machinery that magically converts newly harvested tea leaves into the beverage that you and I so love and enjoy. I could see the withering bed, roughly the size of a large swimming pool gently shaking the leaves, bruising them. As they fell off the withering bed, I watched the leaves enter the Rotovane. Here they would be altered forever, cut by sharp blades into a fine green mulch. The small bits of tea were then laid across an oxidation bed, where they ever so leisurely glided along, turning from a light jade green to bright amber.
I lost sight of them as they entered the ovens. The firing process stops the oxidation and darkens the leaf through a low-temperature bake. On the other side, the dark, broken leaves exit the ovens and are ready for sorting.
It was one, continuous, automated system. There were no hands involved and the whole process was occurring with not a body in sight.
Fortunately for our group, we did arrive when an actual production was taking place so we witnessed the making of black tea on that day in Charleston. Much to our delight, we left the garden with a small bag of the tea that was produced during our visit.
So, now that I have actually been to my first tea garden, I feel a more visceral connection to the leaf. I think about it more, I read about it more, and I enjoy tea just that much more. I remember when I planted my first veggie garden in the middle of urban Toronto two years ago, and I started to enjoy its bounty. The sense of reward and gratification, that connection to the earth, has now transferred itself to my daily intake of the oh-so-desirable leaf.
Life is good folks; drink tea and see.