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Tea garden from Kenya

Kevin Gould travels to Kenya to unearth the truth about his wife's linguistic idiosyncrasies and to meet a man who makes a really rather excellent cup of tea.

My wife, Frances, has always had trouble with her 'r's and 'l's, a linguistic quirk she insists is a characteristic of Kenya's Kikuyu tribe, of which she's a member. Having never before visited this part of Africa, it has been tricky for me to verify this claim, but ro, on my way to visit the Makomboki tea factory, close to her ancestral homelands, I pass a shack with a sign that offers 'Tairoling'. It seems Mrs G wasn't trying.

Here, east of the Rift Valley, the landscape is riotously fertile with a patchwork of mixed-system smallholdings. Hornbills call and banana palms with great saw-scissored leaves shelter mad battalions of maize stalks. Splashed everywhere are acre plots of immaculately tended tea bushes in every shade of green known to the eye, from peat and pistachio to jade and pea. The plots are cleaved with wavy plucker's paths like partings combed into a drunk's hairdo. Like waterfalls of chlorophyll frozen in mid-flight, tea gardens, their undulating surface shimmering in the scant breeze, tumble silently towards the stream that jinks along the valley floor.

I'm being shown round Makomboki by Phil Mumby, a UK-based tea blender famous in the trade for his ability to 'nail' teas in blind tastings. Phil has based his best tea-bag blend, Tea Garden, on leaves from Makomboki, with a sprinkling of tea from Rwanda and Sri Lanka.

"This area has it all," Phil gushes. "Perfect climate, the top tea varieties, caring people; it's little wonder that their tea tastes so bright." The pluckers reciprocate this affection by shouting out Phil's surname at every opportunity, which, bizarrely, they seem to find endlessly amusing. "The Kikuyu Mother of Creation is called Mumbi," offers Phil, by way of explanation.

Wading waist-high through the gardens, Makomboki's farmers pluck only the softest topmost two-leaves-and-a-bud, sprinkling them over their shoulders into woven-palm baskets. Giggling chatter echoes across the hills.

"Conducting honest, equable trade was also a powerful decider in my buying Makomboki tea," admits our blender. The farmers are among 350,000 members of the Kenya Tea Development Association, one of the world's most successful large-scale farmers' co-operative. "This guarantees a fair price for their leaves, plus a substantial annual profit-share that pays for their children's clothing and education."

Makomboki's pluckers start work at dawn, and at midday the sound of a spanner striking an old brake drum signals collection time. The farmers walk their baskets to any of 40 centres where their leaves are quality-checked and weighed before being driven, hanging in jute sacks, by pink lorry to the factory, which smells somehow of fresh Granny Smith apples.

A half-day's withering, during which workers fling drying leaves skywards like kids splashing in a plunge pool, is followed by CTC, or 'crush-tear-curl', a sort of controlled mincing and careful fermentation. Fed into an oven, the CTC leaves are blown into a maelstrom from which they emerge beautifully tanned. They are now ready to be vacuum-packed for the trek back to the UK, where they are treated to a final blending and are packaged in foil pouches.

"The vacuum-packing is vital," Phil asserts. "The key is to make sure that people back home don't drink stale tea. With vac-pac, the tea stays as fresh as the moment it was made."

Mr Wilberforce Nganga Muchiga, the vice president of the factory, invites Phil and me to partake of a cup. Served hot, lightly milked and slightly sugary, it is sensational, and Phil gives a covert, triumphant thumbs up. Afloat in a sea of brisk refreshment, waves of flavour swim from the back of the tongue, finally giving the corners of my mouth a lovely tickling. I realise that we're all saying a silent 'aah' while grins spread across our faces. As my wife might say, "Now that is what I call a ruvverry cup of tea!"

User's guide

  • Many in the tea trade insist 'orthodox' teas, whose leaves are left whole, have a finer aroma than CTC ones. This may be true for the best leaves, but inferior ones can be insipid. CTC fans, however, maintain their tea is brisker, more refreshing and full of delicious malty flavours. By virtue of Makomboki's leaf quality, clever blending and vacuum-packing, this assertion is borne out by Tea Garden's fresh aroma of crisp apples with darker toffee notes.
  • Many people believe putting the milk in first results in a better cup but that's not really true," says Phil. "It stems from the days of fine bone china cups, when people put the milk in first to stop cups cracking from the heat." These days, he advises, you need only remember to use freshly boiled water and a well warmed pot or cup. Three minutes' steeping is ideal for Tea Garden.
  • Garden Tea makes a lovely tea cake. Make a strong brew with 2 bags in 400ml water, and use to soak 500g sultanas overnight. Mix in 200g muscovado sugar, 250g self-raising flour, 1 beaten egg and ½ tsp mixed spice. Tip into a lined, 900g loaf tin. Bake at 170ºC/ gas 3 for 1½ hours or till a skewer comes out clean. Cool. Serve thinly sliced and lavishly buttered.
Kenyan tea