There are three primary factors that determine the flavor of a tea: terroir (pronounced ter-wahr), plant variety, and processing method. The terroir is the complete natural environment in which a product is produced, including the soil, topography, and climate. This term also describes the character, taste, and flavor imparted by the land. What is the south Mississippi terroir, the Piney Woods terroir, or the Jones County terroir? What character does this land impart?
We are in the borderland between the competing geology of the sandy Catahoula formation and the more clayey Hattiesburg formation. The soil is acidic, nutrient rich and often sandy. But, in places, clay lenses sneak in and hold water like a leaky washtub. This area is located at 32 degrees north of the equator - the same latitude as the birthplace of tea in China. The summer is hot and humid, the spring is wet, and the winter mild. The plants are dormant for a month or so, but during the summer, they race toward the sky with incredible speed. You can almost sit and watch them grow, bright green shoots in the morning that darken as they sunbathe.
But the terroir is more than the broader geology and climate. It is specific to the place. Part of the field receives afternoon shade by a few huddled pine trees to the northwest. Another area is shaded in the fall and winter by the live oaks that line the southern boundary. Even the red barn provides a little relief at certain times of year. The rain runs off to the southwest cutting diagonal gullies across the tea rows in a storm. There is a spot where downed trees from a past tornado were burned. The ash changed the soil, the ground does not drain as well and the tea plants in this area rebel. The tall, dark green bushes up the hill look down on their scraggly, pale cousins. This is all part of the tea’s story, its character.
This story is personal as well. Six generations of Hillary’s family have run across this field. Where the tea is growing, her father chased a couple of stubborn cows around when he was a young. It is where her grandfather planted Loblolly pines; where her great-grandfather hunted; and where her great-great-grandfather tried to grow cotton. Next to the field are old pits, now ponds, where the Laurel Brick and Tile Co. mined clay for the bricks to build The City Beautiful.
The field is in a community named for my mother’s family. My 5th great grandfather first settled the area around 1850. My great grandfather dropped out of school in the early 1900s and walked from Myrick to the booming city of Laurel to find work. He would have walked along the road that now bears his family name and past the pasture where we now work the tea.
The field used to be crowded with massive longleaf pine trees. A thick blanket of pine straw covered the forest floor. It is where a railroad spur once crossed the land for the timber crews to haul their harvests to the mills in Laurel. The field is where the Choctaw would cross on their way down to the Tallahala Creek to swim and fish. Where for tens of thousands of seasons the pines quietly dropped their needles to the ground. Before the red barn, the lumber mill, the railroad spur, a city named Laurel, a community of my mother’s people, and the Choctaw, this piece of land has been here - primordial and timeless.
And now, as I watch our children run down the hill between the tea rows, I realize that the history, the story, is all part of this terroir. It imparts a character on the tea and on us as well.