Along the road between Soerendonk and Gastel in North Brabant there is a sign: asparagus and strawberries for sale. On the other side of the driveway is Flipje, the fruit mascot. And a sign: Het Zuyderblad. In the barn behind the house, furnished with industrial lamps, Persian rugs and vintage furniture, a group of students has just finished a workshop. Everything about tea that you make cold, at room temperature or with bubbles. It looks more like a restaurant in an up-and-coming area of a big city than a barn.
Linda Cebrian-Rampen (38) pours tea in a port wine glass and a cognac glass, better than in a mug. It is a Portuguese tea that got its flavor because it is dried in empty port wine barrels. She often uses tea from other small producers for her workshops and webshop, her own tea from last season is completely sold out. Outside, the tea plants on approximately 1 hectare wait until they are ready for their first harvest. A few rows of young plants just arrived from Italy, but also larger, bush-like specimens whose buds are almost big enough now, mid-May.
She was about 25 when her parents’ bookkeeper asked her: what do you want? Only child, trained illustrator. Her parents didn’t ask if she wanted to take over the business. She should also be able to refuse. “But I knew: If I say no, it goes away. Then it stops.” Not only the family business with cows, pigs, asparagus and strawberries, but also some of the region’s culture. And so many farmers are already quitting.
Visited tea farmers
She also knew she wanted to do things differently. She had traveled a lot, and in China, in a teahouse in Beijing, she was seized. Because of the tea, but also because of the history, the stories, the ceremonial meaning, the diversity of types and flavors. ‘Experience’ is the word she often uses when talking about tea.
Then slowly started thinking, reading, learning more and traveling, visiting tea farmers everywhere. To investigate whether it could be done, a tea plantation in Brabant. Because if it has been done in Germany for thirty years, if they can do it in England, even Scandinavia, why not here? In any case, the soil, as it turned out, was good enough for it. From her first harvest in 2018, she thought 300 grams – for a large cup you use 2 grams – enough to let experts taste. “It worked well.” The quality was immediately very good.
Not that she immediately had a business model. You cannot make a living growing tea alone in the Netherlands. Cold is not the problem – it also freezes in China and India – but further from the equator the tea plant grows more slowly, and you cannot pick all year round, only in the months of June to September. Approximately six times, two ‘batches’ per picking.
If you choose a full morning with three people, you might have three kilos of leaves, a quarter of which is left at the end as a ‘dry product’, like tea. Last year she had twenty kilos of ‘finished product’. Land and labor are expensive in the Netherlands. That makes Dutch tea too expensive for the supermarket. “I have to do something about it.” Hence the guided tours, tastings and workshops. “A piece of agritourism.”
Tea with dinner
Linda Cebrian-Rampen sells her best tea, pure black and green tea, all from the same Camellia sinensis, to restaurants in the higher segment, such as vegan restaurant Bij Albrecht in Eindhoven. Or at a culinary event like Steinbeisser, for experimental gastronomy. “Tea can accompany a dish just as well as wine. And it also fits with the trend that people want to drink less when they go out to eat. More and more restaurants understand that.”
Although she may be surprised that so many places still dare to ask for 3 euros for a bag of flavor. And that there is always a sommelier at the highest level, but no one who understands tea. Perhaps it is still too early. “Coffee has already gone through a few revolutions. Tea has only appeared in recent years. Ten years ago I could not have started this.”
She also had to develop her own taste. “I used to drink flavors as good as licorice.” And it’s not even tea. Now she particularly appreciates real tea.
It is true that she makes ‘blends’ of poor quality tea, mixtures with, for example, dried strawberries or verbena. But her special teas are clean. The early harvest, with the first new leaf after winter, is well suited for green tea. The harvest later in the summer, with deeper, more complex flavors, is more suitable for oxidation – as a peeled apple turns brown under the influence of oxygen, the tea leaves also discolor – turning into black tea.
It is a wonderful sight. On one of the classic Dutch farms, where the harvest usually comes from the ground in boxes at the same time, suddenly someone is fiddling with very small leaves. “Two leaves and a bud”, two leaves with a bud, that’s all you pick. “It seems very idyllic, but I’m mainly busy weeding.”
And then the barn, there are tables with flat wicker baskets, large woks where the tea leaves are dried at high temperatures, machines where the leaves are crushed and rolled to release the aromas from the leaves, and dryer-sized roasters, with instructions in Chinese characters. “The process here is most similar to the way many farmers in China make tea.” Small scale, partly manual.
You can feel everything here: it takes courage to make such a refined product in the Netherlands, which is also based on craftsmanship and traditions that took thousands of years to perfect. “The more you travel through all those countries, the more respect you get,” says Linda. China, Taiwan, India, Japan, all with their own characteristics. “Japanese tea production is very advanced. But Soviet-era Georgian plantations, aimed at mass production, are also very special.”
Each batch may appear slightly different under the influence of humidity, sunlight and temperature. After picking, smell almost hourly to determine when to stop aeration and start stirring. Linda keeps track of all the details of each batch in a logbook so she learns from herself. And then she learns from other European tea pioneers who do it their way. “Tonight we’re talking to our group online again. What did you run into? How did you fix it?” As a farmer you might work with your neighbor A tea farmer from France comes to Linda’s house on Sunday to help with the first harvest.
As a tea farmer, she will not spare a Ferrari or three holidays a year. That’s not what she’s doing it for. “To keep such a great company, to carry on a tradition, in my own way. Opinion is a heavy word. But it certainly gives satisfaction.”