The importance of being Camellia.


Aislaby Tea Garden

Infusions of herbs, flowers, fruit, leaves and bark are now called ‘Tea’ but the Chinese Emperor and herbalist Shen Nung is credited with the discovery of Camellia sinensis, four thousand seven hundred and fifty years ago; around the time that Neolithic Stonehenge was being built in ancient Britain. The infusion of the Camellia Sinensis leaf in hot water referred to as ‘tu’ or ‘jia’ would grow from being a medicinal herb to the most popular beverage on earth, second only to water.

But, during its first four millennia the cultivation and manufacture of Camellia sinensis was a closely guarded state secret in China; although tea drinking spread – firstly across Asia and then to Europe. Tea was introduced to Japan & Korea in 600 – 800 AD by travelling Buddhist monks and to Portugal in 1750 by visiting Jesuit priests and Portuguese merchants. Catherine of Braganza the wife of Charles II introduced tea to the English aristocracy.

Enamoured by the new beverage and the profits it could fetch, the descendants of the Stonehenge builders, in the guise of the British East India Company, employed a botanist, Robert Fortune in the early 19th. Century, to travel to China and secretly extract information on the cultivation and manufacturing process for tea as well as obtain planting material for Camellia sinensis and skilled labour. Robert Fortune’s efforts resulted in Camellia sinensis plantations in Darjeeling, India, which however were a limited success. An indigenous variant Camellia sinensis assamica was then discovered and large commercial cultivation encouraged in the Assam region.

In 1866, James Taylor, a Scots Coffee planter in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) travelled to Assam to learn how tea was cultivated and manufactured and on his return started an experimental plot on his Loolecondera estate. He experimented with tea manufacturing and developed much of the required machinery. Several years later when the coffee plantations were completely destroyed by the coffee blight, James Taylor’s experiment was the nucleus of a new industry, and in a few decades Ceylon Tea had become world famous for its quality leading to Sri Lanka becoming the world’s largest tea exporting nation.

One leaf, many variants

Tea Cups

Though it lost its position as the largest exporter in the mid ‘90’s, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) still produces some of the finest teas using the traditional method of plucking by hand and artisanal manufacture based on the knowledge and skills of the tea maker.

The uniqueness of Camellia sinensis is that from the same leaf different variants of tea can be produced. The pluck consists of two leaves and a bud. For black tea manufacture the larger leaves would be chosen while green tea requires smaller leaves. Drying and Oxidation (fermentation) play a key role in how the different teas are produced. Green teas are lightly oxidated, while Oolong tea is requires partial oxidation and black teas the most. Oxidation, achieved through rolling the leaf, brings out the distinctive taste and character of the teas which can also vary due to weather conditions. So, a harvest of leaf from the same field does not produce an identical tea every time.

This is what makes drinking Pure Ceylon Tea a unique experience, on top of the well documented health benefits and reviving properties of Camellia sinensis assamica.

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