Beyond the four-mile-long driveway, and the shaded path named "Lady's Walk" and the soft fields of purple rhododendron and grazing Holstein cows, Jonathan Jones walked among waist-high rows of rich green plants. With loving precision, he plucked off two perfect green leaves and a bud and held them proudly in his hand.
"English tea should be grown on English soil," he said, running his fingers over what he called a victory for horticulture and also for British culture: the first commercial crop of tea ever grown in this tea-mad nation.
Since the days of the British Empire, traders have been bringing tea home from India, China and other faraway lands where climate and labor costs allowed cultivation to thrive. The average person here still drinks at least two cups a day. But now, on a 670-year-old estate in southwest England, Jones and an aristocrat who counts Earl Grey as an ancestor are opening a new era in British tea production.
"It is rather nice to produce the very first locally grown cup of tea," said Evelyn Boscawen, a shy gardening enthusiast whose family has owned the vast Tregothnan estate for centuries. "It's fun, exciting, new."
Growing tea in Britain cuts against the grain in an era of globalized economics, when labor-intensive jobs flow to nations where the with the cheapest workforce. And it defies evolving sensibilities in this nation, where lemon-infused sparkling waters and frothy cafe lattes are making significant inroads on the iconic "cuppa."
This year, for the first time, Britain spent more on instant coffee than on tea, close to $800 million on each, according to beverage industry studies. But tea trade experts said British people are still drinking more tea -- 165 million cups a day -- than coffee.
While a relatively small crop of homegrown tea will hardly take over the huge market, "consumers will be intrigued," said William Gorman, executive director of the Tea Council, an independent group based in London dedicated to promoting tea. He noted that tea is serious business in Britain, where children grow up knowing the difference between a cream tea (a pot with a plate of scones, clotted cream and jam) and high tea (more of a meal).
But, Gorman said, one drawback to having "tea running in the blood" is that you take it for granted. So to remind people about the joy and value of tea, which is credited with helping fuel the British industrial revolution, the Tea Council launched an unusual publicity campaign this year to give the familiar old cup an image makeover.
Britons are used to "tea ladies" in aprons rolling tea trolleys around offices, so the council trained a squad of young men to make a perfect pot of tea and sent them out to factories, offices and beauty salons to offer tea to strangers. The message: Tea isn't just for Granny.
Globally, Gorman said, only water is consumed at higher rates than tea. Tea is a staple in the Middle East and Africa. China and India produce and nationally consume massive amounts of it. Japan is famous for its ubiquitous cups of green tea. And Ireland, just across the sea, tops the global list of per-capita consumption -- with every Irish man, woman and child drinking nearly three cups a day on average.
In the United States, tea consumption took a patriotic hit in the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when enraged colonists dumped British tea into the harbor to protest taxes. While coffee came to dominate, tea is gaining in popularity, said Alyssa Giannini of the Tea Association of the U.S.A., based in New York. "Tea houses are popping up all over the place in New York," she said.
But no matter what is going on elsewhere in the world, the British feel a deep cultural connection to tea. "It's a habitual comfort here," said Gorman, who calculates that Britain's 60 million people drink more tea than North America, Canada and continental Europe combined. "Drinking tea is like breathing."
So Boscawen and Jones thought it was high time to start growing it.
Having done globetrotting research on camellia sinensis, the green bush that produces tea leaves, Jones said he learned that there are many myths about tea, including that it grows only in warm weather. In fact, what really matters, he said, is that there is no frost. He noted that the Cornwall estate has comparable temperatures to Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills, which produces world-famous tea.
Meteorologists have recorded gradually rising temperatures in England in recent decades. But Jones said thermometer readings aren't what kept England from growing tea. It was high costs.
In former British colonies such as India and Sri Lanka, the bushes grew so effortlessly and their leaves were plucked by laborers so cheaply that it has always been more profitable to grow tea abroad, then ship it back to be blended in English factories and packaged as English Breakfast or Earl Grey.
But more than once, the English have thought how nice it would be to stop relying on fields half a world away, Jones said, noting that Winston Churchill was deeply worried during World War II that rationing caused by disrupted tea supplies would hurt morale.
The new Tregothnan tea is exceedingly expensive. Loose blended tea runs about $10 an ounce, and a box of 25 bags costs $18. By comparison, Tetley's popular package of 80 tea bags sells for less than $3. But in an era when people pay $4 for a cup of coffee, the upscale specialty goods chain Fortnum & Mason has bought the novel crop and begun selling it in stores.
"It's a rare tea," remarked Jones, who said that he hopes to expand his current crop of 20,000 plants on 20 acres to 100 acres. Still, he said, he had no illusion it would ever be more than a niche market.
"People think of tea as being quintessentially British when in fact it is grown all over the world, so now it's quite exciting to have some grown at home," said Diana Williams, a spokeswoman for Tetley.
Twenty years ago, she said, people drank exclusively black tea with milk, but now there are many specialty green and herbal teas. "Tea is getting quite exciting," she said, noting that British people are even drinking iced tea, which until recently was seen here as a strange American habit.