Bring a whole new meaning to ‘English Tea’ by growing your very own fresh tea leaves. Far more than just for your morning cuppa, they are simply stunning in salads, stir fries & my ‘tea & cucumber’ sandwiches. Here’s how…
You don’t need a colonial hillside to grow your very own green tea, hailing from cool, damp mountains of China, tea – far from being a tropical crop – actually originates from a habitat surprisingly similar to that of our blustery little island chain.
It’s Latin name Camellia sinensis (aka. The Chinese Camellia) betrays just how closely related it is to the super common ‘B&Q’ Camellia Camellia japonica (aka. The Japanese Camellia), and can be grown in almost an identical way.
In fact Winston Churchill even had plans to cover large areas of the South West in tea estates, as he believed that if our war-time supplies were ever cut off we simply couldn’t have won! The only reason why this never actually happened was simply because the war ended before the plantations were ever planted – no kidding.
All tea needs to thrive is a bright sunny location and an ericaceous (slightly acidic) soil. So if, like me, you are gardening on an area with a rather alkaline soil (you see lumps of white chalk when your digging or your kettle furs up) you are probably better off planting yours in a pot of ericaceous compost, i.e. the stuff they sell for Rhododendrons and Azaleas in every garden centre.
Once the plants are about 50cm-1m high they will be more than happy to fend off anything the average UK winter can throw at them – with mine shrugging off chills down to -15C over two sub-Arctic Croydon winters. Meaning that unless you live in the very coldest of regions of the UK, you too can grow your own tea. However if yours are still small saplings (the way that plants are usually sold) give them in indoor home in a bright, cool porch or windowsill over their first 2-3 winters until they are large enough to take care of themselves.
COOKING WITH FRESH TEA LEAVES
The single most important piece of info about eating green tea is making sure you get the harvesting right. Adult tea leaves are inedibly tough, packed full of stringy fibres and intensely bitter flavours. Fresh young leaves on the other hand are soft, tender and with a refreshing bitter-sweet, ‘tonic water meets burnt caramel’ flavour.
I pick the first two developing tea leaves on the end of each growing tip while they are still soft to touch and a bright apple green, as shown in the picture above. At this stage they should be tender enough to pinch off gently with your fingers – if you need to reach for a scissors, they are too tough. This regular picking, pinching out the growing tips all over the plant (up to 5 times throughout the summer) ironically triggers more vigourous growth, creating neat bushy plants far prettier than a boring old box hedge.
By simply letting these leaves wilt slightly you can use them to make a truly stunning homemade green tea. You can even grind the dried leaves down to make a Japanese-style matcha powder, used in Asia just like vanilla extract to make fluorescent green, antioxidant- packed cupcakes, ice creams, etc. (look out for a post on this in the future)
GREEN TEA DESSERTS
However by far the easiest and most unusual way to eat the leaves is as a sophisticated salad ingredient, with a really grown-up, bitter-sweet tang. Use ’em in small quantities just like you would rocket or chicory, either fresh off the plant or blanched for a second or two in briskly boiling water to bring out the best of their colour and flavour. Let your imagination run wild, but in the meantime here are a couple of recipe ideas I have concocted…
MY TEA & CUCUMBER SANDWICHES
OK to be very honest here, the silly pun came before the recipe – but boy does it work! The slight bitterness of the tea leaves contrasts wonderfully with the cool, crispness of the cukes and the indulgent creaminess of the thick layer of Philly beneath.
1) Slice the a cucumber into thin strips using a vegetable peeler. There is no need to peel the cuke itself as sliced this way its skin will be shredded up so fine you will barely notice it.
2) Spread a generous amount of cream cheese (full fat of course!) over some back-to-basics sliced white. You could even fold a hint of lemon zest or nutmeg into the cheese before spreading for added depth.
3) Layer over the cucumber slices with a few tips of fresh green tea leaves tucked between, cut of the crusts and slice into finger sandwiches. Serve with a cup of homegrown green tea (and for serious added ponciness) decorate with a couple of starry blue, cucumber flavoured borage flowers.
GRILLED PEACH, TEA LEAF & BLUE CHEESE SALAD
Nothing will beat this elegant (and deceptively simple) salad in the snob food stakes at your next dinner party. Delicious, healthy and uncomplicated, this is what summer eating should be all about.
1) Slice some fresh peaches (homegrown is you’ve got ’em) into quarters, brush them with olive oil and sear them over a hot grill for 2 minutes on each side.
2) Place a good fistful of mixed salad leaves (rocket, watercress, etc) in the centre of a large plate and scatter over a generous serving of walnuts & cubes of blue cheese.
3) Arrange the grilled peaches over the salad, scatter over a few sprigs of mint and – of course – some freshly picked tea leaves.
4) Drizzle over a little honey, a good glug of olive oil and a spritz of lime. Season well & attack with a fork!
For full instructions on how to grow, cook and eat homegrown Green Tea check out pg 202 of my new book Homegrown Revolution!