Enjoy a cup o' tea in the country side

By Donna McIntyre

The tea farm was founded in 1996 by Vincent Chen. Photo / Supplied.
The tea farm was founded in 1996 by Vincent Chen. Photo / Supplied.

How many times in our week do we find the space to enjoy an old-fashioned cup of tea?

I'm not talking about throwing a tea bag in a cup of boiled water. This is sitting down with friends or family and making tea in a pot, the time-honoured way, from tea leaves.

We're reminded of this as we settle in for a tea-making ceremony at the Zealong Tea Estate on the outskirts of Hamilton, about 80 minutes' drive from Auckland.

The beautiful setting is in the lush, green Waikato countryside with the rows of tea bushes across the 48ha Zealong property including the new factory and visitor centre for bus tours under construction, and the existing tea house, visitor centre and pavilion.

We tour the organic estate, view the sculptures including large tea pots, have the opportunity to try on the traditional tea-picking clothing.

We scan the brag wall of photos and articles about local and overseas dignitaries, including Charles and Camilla's November visit.

The tea farm was founded in 1996 by Vincent Chen who felt he could grow tea here after noticing how well camellia bushes grew in the Waikato, and knowing the domestic camellias are similar to the Camellia sinensis variety from which tea is made. The Zealong brand and restaurant launched five years ago.

Marketing manager Sen Kong tells us tea grows well in the region thanks to abundant rainfall, soil quality, hot days and cool nights.

We pluck the top three most tender and bright green leaves - the "flush" - from the tea bushes set aside for visitors to pick.

Zealong Tea Estate on the outskirts of Hamilton. Photo / Supplied
Zealong Tea Estate on the outskirts of Hamilton. Photo / Supplied

The top pickers collect 80kg of these a day, during the harvesting months of November, January and March.

Zealong is New Zealand's only commercial tea plantation, producing 100 tonnes of wet leaf each year, resulting in 20 tonnes in finished product.

Tea masters monitor the process, assessing the aromas to decide when the tea leaves are ready.

But now it's time to relax. Five tea pots, equality jugs (to mix the three-parts of tea from the pot), our tasting sets of aroma cup and drinking bowl are laid out on top of a table made from solid kauri.

The pots are for the five Zealong teas, from green through three oolong (pure, aromatic and dark) and a black tea. Oolong, the most complicated to produce, is its flagship product. All the varieties come from the same leaves; the tastes come down to how much oxidation the leaves receive.

While Sen allows the dried leaves to unfold and draw in the pre-warmed pots, he tells us to smile as we sip the first taste, to appreciate the body at the back of the mouth and then experience the after taste at the back of the throat.

He has poured our tea into the aroma pot which we cover with our tasting bowl, flipping them upside down so the tea flows into the bowl.

Rolling the empty aroma pot between our palms, we breathe in the smell.

The aromas between the green, oolong and back are distinctly different, some more grassy, others lighter.

Sen does a second and third brew, using the same leaves, just adding more water. Each brew is more intense and Sen says at home the same leaves will serve him and his family the whole day.

But this plantation is more than just tea. Its restaurant is a popular place for high tea, its a la carte menu plus the aperitivo menu on Friday and Saturday evenings.

They also have tea-based cocktails and mocktails.

Just don't ask for a coffee!

• Donna was a guest of Zealong.

In the Waikato

Eat, drink: We checked out Good George in Frankton, which offers a brewing tour, tasting and share platter for $19 per person. Its beers are brewed on site in what used to be St Georges Church on Somerset St. During our tasting session we sampled five beers and learned how the owners were inspired by Canadians to open a craft brewery in 2012 with a pub attached.

Lickety split: Hot, bothered and in need of refreshing? Cool down with the many varied gourmet gelato flavours at Duck Island in Hamilton East (see Facebook). Or if a gelato just isn't enough to feed the hunger, next door is the Hamilton locals' favourite burger joint of the moment, Goneburger, for massive meaty (and vege and vegan) treats.

Stay: We enjoyed B&B accommodation at Blackwood House in the Waikato countryside, (booking.com), only a few minutes' drive from Hamilton.

- Weekend magazine

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