The Tea Lady

It started out simply enough. In her small Byron Bay kitchen ten years ago, Sarita Merlo began playing around with different herbs she had purchased at Fundies, experimenting with blends in order to create teas. Having recently graduated in Naturopathy at the Australian College of Natural Medicine in Brisbane, she was already working at a couple of local centres; herbs had always been her favourite part of naturopathy. ‘I was getting a little bit of this and a little of that, blending chamomile with lemon balm and peppermint,’ she was telling me, over tea (naturally, a delicately fragrant oolong) in her Coopers Shoot home. ‘And I thought there must be other people out there wanting therapeutic teas – and what a good thing this could be to go alongside my naturopathy.’

More than that, Sarita perceived that whereas people wanted to be healthy – and in this area were specifically interested in alternative ways to become so – there was little allure in their drinking a bunch of plain herbs. ‘So to get people to drink herbs,’ she resumed, ‘I thought I would create something using real ingredients like vanilla beans which were also palatable, to come up with teas that were also healthy.’ She was aware that there was little around to fill the brief of being not only good for you but genuinely, deliciously drinkable. ‘I don’t think anyone had done it very well,’ she said. ‘There were de-tox teas which everybody hated, but I wanted people to enjoy herbs and benefit from them too.’

It took about a year of experimental blending before Sarita felt she had refined it suf- ficiently to trial on other people. Her friends were and to this day remain willing guinea pigs, but it wasn’t until she took the step of launching her teas at the Bangalow markets that she realised the extent of her products’ excellence. ‘That first year was incredible,’ she recalled. ‘I had this corner stall at the markets and it was January. I was bombarded by so many people – I really didn’t know what I had let myself in for!’ And thus began Byron Bay Tea Company.

Out of the many interested customers over ensuing markets, one was an employee of Gwinganna Health Retreat in the Gold Coast hinterland. ‘They’ve been a really good cus- tomer ever since,’ said Sarita. ‘We’ve worked on doing a signature tea for them.’ Add to that Gaia Retreat and it gradually dawned on Sarita where her niche lay. Retreats today are ‘a great venue for my teas,’ and it’s easy to see why. There are currently 20 types of teas and seven different types of packaging – the packaging itself is stylish and glamor- ous – the range embracing traditional-style ‘real’ teas such as Earl Grey and English Breakfast, her signature herbal blends with names like Energy and Digest, Immunity and Calming; new herbal ones called Ginger Zing, Dandylicious and Black Magic and the Orientals which include White Tea, Jasmine, Buddha’s Tears and Japanese Quince. Sarita unclasps the lid of a new one called Skin and I inhale the gentle fragrance of tiny dried rose buds which stud the blend of lemongrass, echinacea and nettle, amongst other herbs.

These are quite the most beautiful teas – teas with health-giving and healing properties – I have ever encountered. Clearly I am not alone in my enchantment: Byron Bay Tea Company now sells to more than 50 stores, restaurants, spas and retreats Australia-wide, exhibits at Fine Food Australia fairs and has an online store. There could be no better advertisement for her product than the softly-spoken Sarita herself: all flawless skin, bright-eyed slenderness – and yet that irksome wholesomeness is totally exonerated by her mention, as we wound up our chat, that she was shooting off for a glass of wine with a neighbour.

Best of all, she still does the markets.

About victoria

Author of the gastro-memoir 'Amore&Amaretti: A Tale of Love an Food in Tuscany', I am a Byron Shire-based food and travel writer, food columnist, cooking teacher, recipe editor and chef. Born in Canberra, ACT, I have a BA in languages although am only really passionate about the Italian one, in which I am fluent, having spent four years in Tuscany in my late twenties, and returning reasonably frequently ever since. Despite that, my partner of many years, a wonderful artist, clothes designer and aged carer, is half-Greek!
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