Tea: 'Made in New Zealand' ... yes, really..
It's a ferociously hot day in Malaysia. Sultry, the risk of a slight shower in the afternoon. Driving up from the south (Kuala Lumpur), the car took gradual incline in its stride up into the Cameron Highlands region in central West Malaysia.
Besides other tourist attractions there, we'd come to visit tea plantations, on our holiday from NZ. I'd been to Cameron Highlands a long time ago, during schooling days. As with school excursions, we'd coached there from Penang. Visiting rose plantations, cactii growers, strawberry farms, honey apiaries. In Malaysia, where strawberries grow in profusion. You're kidding, right? Penang has an annual average temperature of +28C whereas the elevation of Cameron Highlands reduces this to a very comfortable +18C... optimum for market gardens. The growers offered fruits and vegetables that were double the sizes of the lowland growers. After the high pressure heat of KL, we felt it right away, cool and fresh.
Over the years the Cameron Highlands have enjoyed higher visitor numbers but the roads are basically the same: we drove the stop-start-stop-start way up the incline; traffic jams of major proportions.
Choc-a-bloc buildings on every bend … Cameron Highlands had certainly grown up. Gone was the idyllic peace-and-quiet that visitors escaping Penang and Kuala Lumpur heat and pace were hoping to enjoy... they won't find it on the roads. Perhaps once they get our of their cars and adapt to the lower temperatures they'd decompress a little.
We visited Bharat Tea Plantation, a photographers' dream. Hillsides of tea plants, undulating, following the contours of the slope. In sunshine one moment in shade the next, young green leaves just bursting full of flavour, waiting to be picked. I braved the steep slopes, balanced my way downwards and clung onto the handrails to view the tea plants in situ. Into the factory, visitors could view seemingly ancient machinery in furious action, from behind glass panels. Bits that clanged, whirred and whistled, bumping and stamping. Because of the machinery's age, it was built to last. And despite its age, blessed with management who meticulously maintain it, it will still be going strong for many more years.
The 'piece de resistance' of the trip, was to have high afternoon tea. After much debate, it was to the Ye Olde Smokehouse. The grand old dame, that I'd remembered from schooldays. Logs burning in the fireplace, it was colonial style personified. A Tudor-picture-postcard hideaway, it's a hotel with four-postered bedroom suites if you are intent on staying the night. The waiter who served us was in crisply starched uniform. There were ornate teapots and dainty teacups. We had Devonshire cream teas, all very prim and proper. Local colour at weekend night market, you could have dinner of steamboat (in my TOHC book) every night. Fab
It was surprising that New Zealand also grows tea. I'd never heard of it before but we're in a new era of more choice for farmers; goats for cheese, alpaca & llama farming, buffaloes for milky mozzarella. Why not tea growers in NZ? Well... one, so far. Called Zealong, in Gordonton just outside Hamilton, in the Waikato region. Traditionally, oolong tea had always been grown in China and, more recently, Taiwan. Now in NZ, Zealong oolong tea is grown without insecticides and fungicides, making it organic, pure NZ. Signposted just after Huntly Power Station, the Zealong tea plantation is very easy to find.
Rows and rows of tea plants, or by its other name: camelia sinensis. Peace and tranquility, is what I associate with drinking oolong tea. The inherent goodness of soil and air gives the tea natural fragrance and freshness. Three different tastes are offered in Zealong: pure, aromatic and dark; delicate colour and aroma, and pleasant tang – beautiful.
In NZ, the Zealong tea farm gives a video presentation and later a traditional tea ceremony could be had. If you're a tea lover, its freshness, flavour and fragrance will intrigue you. Zealong oolong tea - aah! That should be interesting. We were taught to slow down and let the tea brew and infuse. We made our choices of a selection of petit fours, and savoured the difference of the taste of the teas. Venturing outside to the viewing platform, there are hectares of tea growing, all around us. A row of giant teapots at one side of the farm, beckoned. Land of the Giant-Teapots - a novel idea. And miniature teapots on sale... so perfectly made, yet so tiny. It was getting late for our return journey. Zealong oolong tea, made in NZ, organically pure; who would have thought? Perhaps, an excuse to come again soon.