The Taking of Tea

I have always privately felt that the world could be fairly neatly divided up into tea- drinkers and coffee-drinkers. Of course it is a gross over-simplification and generalisation, subject to overlaps and fashion – and yet, based on my own experience, it seems that there are those who love coffee and rarely drink tea and those whose days could almost be measured by the frequency of their tea rituals. People in this category are always ‘putting the kettle on’ to mark an event or a pause; my own two sisters love nothing more than a mug of fairly milky tea at various intervals throughout the day. Whereas I am most definitely a coffee person, who might drink tea a handful of times a year only. I do not dislike tea at all – on the contrary I am aware that there are teas and there are teas and I have indeed at times admired a particular type or brew.

Having recently, however, been taken on a little tour around a tea plantation has
subtly shifted my attitude. Just outside of Murwillumbah are the rolling green hills which constitute Madura. The word ‘madura’ means ‘place of paradise’ in the Tamil language, marketing and public relations manager Ray Fien tells me. Ray, large and warmly avuncular, has been working at Madura for seven years, having come from a 25-year position with Coles. He explains that Madura is a family company run by four couples and employing over 50 locals. Operating since the 1970s, it has only been over the last seven years – as long as Ray has been there – that it has stepped up its commitment to ensuring a minimal environmental impact. Madura’s teas were named amongst the cleanest sold in Australia by Choice magazine, and the company has been recognised nationally for its sustainable approach to packaging and waste minimisation, its practices including re-using cardboard for mulch, the use and management of glue and fuel efficiency for farm machinery. Ray rescues me from the sun and guides me through the factory where hi-tech Italian equipment is filling 450 tea- bags a minute: oxygen-bleached filter bags utilising no staples. The tea that generally goes into tea-bags is known as ‘fannings’ or ‘dust’ and is the waste product produced from the sorting of higher quality loose-leaf tea – in the case of Madura, however, the smallest leaf particles are used. The farm employs very few pesticides, and no insecticides at all. Water is regularly tested for chemical residue, with samples sent off every year to the Queensland Health Scientific Services.

Back outside we stand in the shade, and Ray points out some rudiments of tea-growing. All around us is green lushness, gently undulating hills and dales across 55 acres. Only the top one to two inches of the mature tea plant – both buds and leaves, called ‘flushes’ – are picked. A plant will grow a new flush every seven to ten days during the growing season. Cultivated plants are pruned to waist-height for ease of plucking. Of the two principal varieties used, Madura’s is the large-leafed Assam type. Tea is traditionally classified based on the techniques with which it is produced and processed – and so, for example, black tea is wilted and fully oxidised, which also means that it contains fewer catechins (a type of anti- oxidant) than green and white teas, neither of which are oxidised. White tea is the healthiest type of all; green is less processed than black. Blending enables an almost endless range of scented and flavoured variants – for example, bergamot which perfumes Earl Grey.

I have so loved my visit: tea makes much more sense. And while I may never actually go over to the other side, convert to a fully-fledged tea drinker, I am now aware of possibilities previously unimagined, and plan to explore them.

Madura Tea Estates is at 753 Clothiers Creek Road, Murwillumbah – and absolutely worth a trip.

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