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Westholme

Cold Weather Tea Farming in Vancouver Island

“I heard from a farmer in Darjeeling, who told me to relax, because the more stress the plants experience, the better the tea will taste. In an instant, all the pressure lifted from my shoulders as I realised I could just let them be. From that point onwards, I began to embrace and even invite the extreme conditions.”

If I asked you to imagine a thriving, world class tea farm, your first thoughts might be of the lush, green hills of Darjeeling or the neat terraces of Yunnan Province, rather than the inclement west coast of Canada. But on a modest plot along the southeastern crest of Vancouver Island in the Cowichan Valley, self taught tea maker Victor Vesely and ceramicist Margit Nellemann are breaking new ground. Since establishing Westholme Tea Farm, they have succeeded in cultivating Canada’s first known Camellia Sinensis plant.

“We couldn’t find high quality organic tea in larger quantities, so we began to look into sourcing and importing it.” Vesely explains over the phone from Westholme’s tearoom and gallery. “But we wanted to develop it further, as a part of the business that could complement Margit’s artistry in clay work – to marry the two. As Margit was already creating teapots in clay, it was up to me to provide the tea.”

Nearly eight years ago in 2010, with just 200 tea plants, the husband-and-wife duo embarked on their new, experimental venture. “We did our homework to the best of our abilities,” Vesely says. “When we saw a tea plantation in Cornwall, England covered in snow, it really spurred us on and we went from there.” Somewhat surprisingly, cold weather tea farming has an extensive precedent, dating back to the 1800s when Russia became one of the earliest cultivators in Europe.

Still a little hesitant however, Vesely began sharing his project with the online tea community. “I heard from a farmer in Darjeeling, who told me to relax, because the more stress the plants experience, the better the tea will taste. In an instant, all the pressure lifted from my shoulders as I realised I could just let them be. From that point onwards, I began to embrace and even invite the extreme conditions.”

As waters froze
Sugar slipped
Beyond the ice
To sweeter consequence

During the same, cold winter months that initially worried Vesely, when ice crystal formation threatens to dehydrate, crush or rupture their cells, tea plants respond ingeniously by increasing their sugar content. While pure water freezes at 0°C, sugar solutes can lower the freezing point by around 1.8°C for every 270 million molecules of added substance (a scientific measurement known as a mole). “We’ve had some very harsh winters when temperatures have dropped as low as -15ºC, but not for extended periods, and thankfully, our plants have survived. The snow even acted as insulation.” Vesely explains, with an air of positivity.

It took six years of development before Westholme was ready to deliver the world its first Canadian tea. “We waited to launch our tea because, even in our fifth year, Margit didn’t think it was quite good enough,” Vesely recounts. “It was a very hard thing to do as a business and as a tea maker to wait yet another year, but it was well worth it.”

During the winter that bridged their fifth and sixth years, the Cowichan Bay experienced a rough season. “The terroir was pushed,” Vesely remembers, “but the flavour was pushed too.” The stress on the plants proved to be a critical factor in producing the quality of tea that he and Margit were striving for. Since then, with average summer temperatures of 38ºC dropping to around -8ºC in winter, it has been the constant weather accentuation that has developed the distinctive terroir of these Canadian teas.

Fondly, Vesely explains that Westholme’s unique position as Canada’s first tea farm granted them the great privilege of selling out of their teas in their first year of trading, before they had harvested a single plant. “But our concern was not to be the first,” he continues, “It was to create the finest.” While their debut success could be attributed to novelty, Westholme’s second consecutive year of triumph can only be a testament to the quality of its crop. “In some small, humble way, we have shifted the history of tea, which is truly unique and quite fabulous,” Vesely celebrates. “But it always comes back to honouring tradition; doing something different, but never compromising on the quality. We’ll never waver from that.”

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