America is blessed, of course, with abundant tempting produce, edible or otherwise. Around our way in rural western New York, roadside stalls carry blueberries, green beans, sweetcorn and maple syrup.
And when sister-in-law and I journey through the southern states on our annual road trip north from Florida, we haggle over key limes, taste fresh pecans in Georgia, though we never seem to be there at the right time for its fabled peaches, raid the edges of cotton fields for some of the discarded tough, prickly white balls so we can say we’ve actually been cotton pickin’ in the cotton-pickin’ south. And we’ve fallen prey to hand-scrawled signs advertising “Boiled Green Peanuts”. Bitter experience has proved that these taste revolting and are surely a deliberate joke on unsuspecting northerners.
Sister-in-law having acquired one of those impressive large four wheel drives that, if it wasn't red, would look a bit like a tank, we’ve even picked up some art and a concrete bird bath which I suppose also counts as local produce.
This trip, however, we were after something different. We had heard on good authority that, somewhere in south Carolina, not far from the venerable city of Charleston, there was a tea plantation – the only one in the United States. Tea plantations for me used to conjure up vague pictures of hillsides in India. The flat “Low Country” around Charleston seemed an unlikely place. But America is full of surprises and a tea plantation there actually was. A French botanist first brought a tea plant to the area in 1799 and it’s been grown around there ever since.
We drove under canopies of live oak trees,
parked the tank in the shade and looked out over neat rows of bushes, all with curiously flat tops.
There was a Gift Shoppe, where we were encouraged to sample the free tea on offer. Of course I forgot that, when you ask for tea in America, you have to specify “hot” tea. When I first arrived Stateside, I was puzzled. What other kind of tea could there possibly be? The iced sort hadn’t quite crossed my radar. Now I find that iced tea is everywhere, even sold ready made in the supermarket and is most people’s choice of grown-up soft drink. Not mine though. Call me old-fashioned but in my opinion tea should be nothing less than piping hot. This time, I briefly forgot where I was and stuck my cup under the tap, only for the stuff to come out cold. Hot tea was nowhere to be found.
Wouldn’t you know, we were there at the wrong time of year for the tea harvest but we did have an interesting tour of the “factory”,
with video screens popping up to with useful information - tea bushes like it wet, which is why they like it in the Low Country.
And there’s now a huge, high-tech harvesting machine which chugs along shaving off the succulent shoots from the tops of the bushes, which is why the bushes all have crew cuts. And you can take that olde American standby, a quaint trolley bus, to explore the plantation.
Back in the Gift Shoppe, which was vast and stocked just about anything tea-related, including, naturally, Tea Shirts, I finally discovered the free hot tea, lurking in a corner and took a gulp. It was nice enough but didn’t seem that different from Tetley’s. Better not tell the Americans that. But it was tea all right and I suppose that’s an achievement in itself. Plus it’s the official tea of the White House
You could have your photograph taken next to a model of a large, grinning frog sitting on a bench and clutching, yes of course, a mug of tea. Maybe it was green tea. The frog, the plantation’s mascot, was called Waddy, after Wadmalaw Island, where we were. You can get married there too. Tea and toasts, anyone?
Then a fellow tourist pointed the other way, “That’s the best place for a photo!” We went to look and there was a large signpost. It said “Next Closest Tea Plantation: China 7,320 miles, Kenya 7,816 miles, Indonesia 10,149 miles”.
To be continued....