Picking the suggested leaf and a bud from one of our young tea plants.
According to the people at Camellia Forest, who supplied our tea plants, we are supposed to pick 1 or 2 of the newly growing leaves and the leaf bud on each stem. At this early stage of the bush’s life, the idea is to leave a couple new leaves on the stem unpicked, so some growing gets done. Then, after a week or two, you can go back and pick from that stem again.
We played it safe: On our first sweep, we ended up with only about 25 leaves or buds. (We had to combine the leaves from all three plants to get that total; someday, we’re hoping to have enough leaves from each bush so that we can try making single-variety teas.) We picked them in the morning, having read that tea leaves picked in the afternoon can have unpleasantly higher levels of tannin.
Turning leaves into tea: 5 easy steps
1) Withering. We spread the leaves out on a baking sheet for the rest of the day to let them wilt. We wanted them to be sad and wilty looking, like salad that’s been left out too long. For us, that took from about ten in the morning until six that night.
2) Rolling. Then we rolled the wilted leaves firmly, one at a time, between fingers and thumbs, hard enough to feel the juices in the leaves being released. Then we spread out the needle-shaped rolled leaves on the baking sheet.
3) Fermenting. This just means letting the leaves oxidize until all the green color is gone and they’re completely brown. We let our first batch sit for 3 full days in the wine cellar, and by the end of that time, there were still patches of green amid the brown. At that point, since it was a Friday, we moved on to the next step. With our second batch of leaves (which we picked a couple weeks later), we gave them 5 days. Even so, we still saw a few hints of green.
4) Drying. Although the tea looked plenty dry to us, we decided to follow Camellia Forest’s instructions to dry the tea, still on its baking sheet, in a 250° oven for 20 to 25 minutes. We let it cool thoroughly (for a few hours) and transferred the leaves carefully into our metal tin.
5) Brewing. The finished product, once we poured briskly boiling water into a teapot with our precious tablespoonful of tea leaves and let it steep for 5 minutes, was more delicate than we had hoped, though it definitely had a tealike scent and a tannic afterbite. For our next harvest, we’ll try picking the leaves in the afternoon—maybe that extra tannin will help add some body—and we’ll let them oxidize for however long it takes for the leaves to turn entirely brown. And Team Cow will provide the milk.
Our super-delicate tea. The leaves aren't from our plants (we used it all,and it was about this much), but ours looked exactly like these.
By Christine Ryan, Sunset Executive Editor