black&white #19: Nine Ladies Dancing, a triumph of tea-making
10 min steep
Back in May I wrote about a spectacular new tea called Nine Ladies Dancing. It’s 100% pure Scottish-grown leaf from the walled gardens of Scotland’s ancient country estates and houses. And it’s so rare that it’s only available at Fortnum & Mason’s rare tea counter (but about to sell out), from our partner, the fabulous Corinthia Hotel in their Royal Penthouse Suite - and now online at cantontea.com. It’s super-limited edition, we’ve only got 25 tins of the glorious leaves, and we can hardly believe our luck.
Nine Ladies Dancing draws its name from the nine indomitable entrepreneurs who repurposed the walled gardens of their country estates into tea gardens in Perthshire, Fife and Angus and Kincardineshire. They called themselves the Tea Gardens of Scotland (TGS) and their mission was to create a revolutionary wave of authentic, handcrafted Scottish tea. After years of hard work, Nine Ladies Dancing is the result. A light-bodied golden black tea with notes of dried fruit, caramel and chocolate, and a gentle woodiness in the background that speaks to its unique Scottish terroir. Nine Ladies Dancing really is a triumph of tea-making and, as I found out from TGS member Pinkie Methven of St Martins Abbey, a matter of timing. “We always wanted to create really top-quality tea. But none of us had enough leaf individually to be able to sell commercially. So we thought: let’s make the first 100% Scottish premium tea before someone beats us to it. We’d been doing it the longest, we wanted to be the trailblazers so let’s pool our crop and see what we can come up with.”
01 | Tea Gardens of Scotland members from left to right: Pinkie Methven, Veronica Murray Poore, Susie Walker Munro, Polly Holman-Baird, Lisa Dickson, Kate Elliott, Mary Gifford, Catherine Drummond-Herdman and Jane Spencer Nairn.
This kind of collaborative and entrepreneurial spirit is what defines the group. Of course, every garden has its own specific needs and microclimate to contend with, and each of the nine women have their own individual style of growing to meet these needs – but knowledge sharing is an essential part. Especially, Pinkie tells me, when it comes to winter crop protection. “At the moment, we’re all swapping stories on different kinds of protection. Some of the girls use sheep’s fleece or leaf mold or bark, all different things really to cover our roots to give them an extra layer of cosiness. Some are using fleece and others are covering the whole crop in mesh. I’m doing both to give them an extra belt and braces!” Pinkie also mentions how fantastic the camaraderie is between the nine growers. “When it all goes right, we can celebrate together. But actually, more importantly, when it all goes wrong, it’s really nice to have other people in the same boat.”
Crucial to their success was the input of Beverly-Claire Wainwright, founder of the Scottish Tea Factory, UK Tea Academy tutor and international artisan tea producer and roaster. She worked with the group for several years, advising the nine growers as they attempted to bring their leaves to harvest. On the challenges of Scottish tea-growing, Beverly says “the conditions for growing tea in Scotland are far from ideal with a very, very short growing season, harsh winters and low light levels. It’s been, by necessity, an experimental process.” Once the leaves were brought to harvest, Beverly started to painstakingly develop the processing techniques most suited to the flavour and characteristics of the tea. It takes several days and nights of rolling, resting and roasting each small batch to draw out the sweetest, richest flavours of the blend.
02 | Beverly-Claire Wainwright at The Scottish Tea Factory.
So, what does the future hold for this extraordinary collective of Scottish tea growers? At the moment, the yields are still tiny so the focus will remain on Nine Ladies Dancing, improving their tea bushes, and increasing the amounts being produced each year. When will the tea bushes reach maturity? “We’re not sure”, says Pinkie. “They’re already around 6 years old and they need to get a wriggle on so we can see what they’re capable of producing. But it’s the weather up here. It’s just not ideal but at the same time it makes such a good flavour profile.” I ask about changing climates, and whether she thinks this will help or hinder the growing process. “Well,” she says, “the winters are worse, so that doesn’t help. The summers are better, yes of course, but this year the bushes woke up so late that it shortened the already tiny growing window. And on top of that, if the bushes are damaged during the winter they need time to mend themselves. It’s such a big demand on the plants.” Is Scottish tea-growing viable on a larger scale? “We’ll have to wait and see. If we can start seed-saving from the strongest bushes then perhaps, but it won’t be for a while. It’s still such a marginal crop and, of course, it doesn’t offer quick returns to the average farmer. You need to be in it for the long run.”
Pinkie also tells me that it’ll soon be available in one of Scotland’s most famous and luxurious five-star hotels. But after growing the yield and business, Pinkie says there will be a cut off point. “We’re going to go until we make a certain amount and then actually we all individually want to make our own single garden teas and bring those to market. I’m sure as a collective we’ll continue to work together on something, but we’ve all got our own stories to tell”.
Pinkie Methven (St Martins Abbey, Perthshire)
03 | Pinkie foliar feeding her tea bushes at St Martins Tea Garden.
Pinkie’s family grew tea in Assam for generations, making her adventures in tea- growing even more remarkable. Her tea bushes at St Martins Abbey grow in a previously abandoned walled garden, not used since WW1. Now the garden thrives, and the ancient walls are lined with poppies and a variety of aromatic fruit and berry trees. Pinkie loves experimenting with different plants to bring out the unique St Martins terroir in her tea leaves.
Veronica Murray Poore (Broich Tea Garden, Perthshire)
04 | Strong young tea bushes thriving at Veronica’s Broich Tea Garden in Perthshire.
Ronnie’s family connection with tea dates back to the 1920s, when her grandfather worked in the Far East. In 2017, Ronnie planted 1,200 tea seedlings in the disused market garden of her family home. Its sheltered location and sunny micro-climate means the tea bushes are thriving. The terroir at Broich Tea Garden is unique in the TGS collective as it lies in lowland Strathearn, alongside the River Earn, only 80 metres above sea level on rich alluvial soil.
Susie Walker Munro (Kinnettles Tea Garden, Angus)
05 | Susie at work among the ancient walls of Kinnettles Tea Garden in Angus.
Kinnettles Tea Garden is part of an arable farm on the East Coast of Scotland. In 2007, Susie started to look into new ways to diversify and settled (somewhat bravely) on tea. Tea, however, was in her blood. Susie’s ancestor, Charles Alexander Bruce, was responsible for bringing assamica tea to the British market in 1839. Originally, 300 tea bushes were planted in two polytunnels. These early trials were successful and Susie initiated the Tea Gardens of Scotland collective.
Polly Holman-Baird (Rickarton, Kincardineshire)06 | Polly tending to her tea bushes in the polytunnels at Rickarton, Kincardineshire.
Guarded by ranks of towering beech trees, rows of young tea bushes stand on parade in the Rickarton garden overlooking the ancient Cowie Water river. Protected by polytunnels from the everchanging highland weather, Polly’s regiment of tea bushes are an experimental diversification, augmenting her husband’s long established sheep flock. Inspired by his ancestor Robert Palk, a one time Governor of Madras, she started small with 150 bushes but hopes one day her regiment may become an army.
Lisa Dickson (Dollerie Tea Garden, Crieff)
07 | Lisa watering her tea bushes in the tea maze at Dollerie House, Perthshire.
In lowland Strathearn between Crieff and Madderty a small tea maze has been designed in the private garden of Dollerie House. Lisa is specifically interested in growing tea and the social history of tea, and spent seven years working in India. Lisa and her husband bought and restored Dollerie House together. She has planned the tea maze to both enhance the garden and to share it with like-minded people through tea tourism in the future.
Kate Elliott (Logie Tea Garden, Fife)
08 | Kate’s tea bushes weathering harsh conditions at Logie Tea Garden in Fife.
Logie Tea Garden is located on a sunny slope in the hilly terrain of north Fife, not far from St Andrews. It forms part of an organic farm with herb rich pastures, wildflower meadows, and woodlands – home to grass-fed Dexter cows and one of Scotland’s rarest breeds of sheep, the Boreray. Kate is half-Swedish and grew up in Scandinavia. Kate also grows some of the most unusual and sought-after plants in Scotland. Her vast knowledge of soil behaviour and composition is proving invaluable.
Mary Gifford (Kinnordy Tea Garden, Angus)
09 | Mary checking tea leaf growth in the polytunnels at Kinnordy Estate.
Kinnordy has a beautiful and well-maintained walled garden with a two-storey observatory tower built in one corner, and a circular tower rising to a cupola and walkway. Tea is planted in one quadrant to diversify the estate. When living in Japan in the early 1970s, Mary took a special interest in green tea and tea ceremonies. She moved to Scotland in 2013, intent on creating her own project with tea.
Catherine Drummond-Herdman (Megginch Castle Tea Garden, Perthshire)
10 | Catherine doing a spot of pruning in the walled garden Megginch Castle.
The walled garden at Megginch Castle, with its strong scent of roses, laburnum-arched pathway and heritage varieties of apples and pears, has been well-loved since 1575. Inspired by her ancestor, Captain of an East Indian Company’s merchant ship which sailed to India and China in the 1780s, Catherine now grows tea within the walled garden. She is researching and experimenting with tea seeds from all over the world using natural and regenerative methods.
Jane Spencer Nairn (Rankeilour Tea Garden, Fife)
11 | Rows of well-protected young tea plants at Jane’s Rankeilour Tea Garden in Fife.
Rankeilour Tea Garden is in what remains of an old walled vegetable garden, formerly used as a market garden and nursery before lying fallow for several years. Jane reclaimed the walled garden for the tea garden, planting Crocosmia along the sides which creates a beautiful backdrop for the tea. She also keeps chickens in her tea garden to help to manage pest control – and comes from a family of keen, green-fingered gardeners.