I will never forget my first taste of iced tea. My grandmother was setting the table and I was four or five and busy doing what I did whenever she set the table...sticking (and licking) my finger in the blue "Poppy Trail" sugar bowl and alternately running the same finger through the butter.
However one day I took note of a tall, sweating glass of iced tea and asked if I could take a sip. She told me to squeeze in the slice of backyard lemon and add a few spoons of sugar. That was back when you used proper iced tea spoons. Something about the sweet-sour-icy tannins thrilled me and I've been knocking back the stuff ever since. It's probably flowing through my veins.
I've even been known to call it the "elixir of life".
Anyone that knows me, knows that there's a glass within my reach any given time of the day, although I try to taper off after dinner. Coffee? Meh. It's tea for me, and usually cold. I do my own not-as-teeth-aching version of slightly Southern sweet tea.
I know that the first iced tea was "invented" at the World's Fair in St. Louis in 1904. Yet I was surprisingly ignorant about the origins and growing of actual tea. Then while in Charleston (the stories are still backed up from spring break, I'm afraid) we took a trip out to the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island. It's the only place in North America where tea is grown!
Turns out the conditions are just right for growing tea in this part of South Carolina. The original plants were brought from China and Japan, and then as fate would have it, a third generation certified tea-taster came along to carry on with the farm.
I knew the latin name for the tea plant: Camellia sinensis. But I didn't have a clue what it looked like growing or how tea is actually made.
There at the "tea garden", they take you around the fields on a re-purposed trolley from Philly. You think you're not going to make it back to the main buildings at times while it's lumbering through the sandy soil and then he mentions some of the resident wildlife; poisonous and non-poisonous snakes along with the alligator that just moved into one of the irrigation ponds.
The tea plantation uses no herbicides or fungicides on their 127 acres and uses a water collection system to irrigate, making it a low impact crop. Tea plants thrive in the hot, humid, hundred degree weather, when other crops might wilt.
The tea plants grow close together in hedges trimmed straight and tight as a Marine Corps crew cut. Here they aren't hand-picked like overseas, but harvested with a machine of their own invention somewhat like a hybrid combine.
The tender leaves of new spring growth is the prized "first flush". Too bad it was too early to see this. But new leaves are trimmed periodically as the plant grows (7-10 times) through summer. The leaves are taken back to the farm building where they are put on a withering bed, where they, well, wither. This process removes 12 % of their moisture. Next the leaves are run through a rotorvane that roughs up the leaves, opening the cells to bring out the flavor.
At this point, you might ask if the plantation grows both black and green tea. Turns out it all comes from the same plant. Once it's placed on the oxidization bed, the length of time it's exposed to heat determines whether it becomes green, black or Oolong. Green tea is created in a matter of moments. Finally it's dried and packaged in tea bags for consumption.
Some numbers for thought: It takes 5 pounds of tea leaves to make 1 pound of tea. One pound of tea makes 200 glasses of iced tea.
This my kind of place...hot and cold running complimentary tea. Big, comfy rocking chairs out front to sit a spell and survey the land. Of course they have plenty of American Classic tea and tea accessory-buying opportunities. And it never hurts to sweeten your tea with honey from the Savannah Bee Company, available there as well.
I hear it's gorgeous in the fall, that's when the tea flowers and bazillions of butterflies abound. And since it's a short trip from Savannah I think I'll make a return trip to see.
It's a slippery slope from tea lover to tea geek.
A note if you plan to visit; there's not much else on Wadmalaw Island. They suggest you bring a picnic if you plan on eating while you're out there. Better yet, on your way back turn at Main Road on the way back to Highway 17, and stop at The Tomato Shed. It's an appropriately named little cafe/farm stand next to the tomato packing sheds. Great food; good crab cakes and fabulous BBQ, plus the tomato pie is out of this world and the other pies are just as heavenly.
*Thanks to TaylorTakesaTaste at the top of the page...Such a beautiful image I couldn't help but borrow it!