By Julia Welstead
There’s an eerie calm before the brewing storm the morning I set off down the narrow coastal Oban to Gallanach road to catch the Kerrera ferry. Winter sun scatters across a glassy sea and beams shafts of light onto the surprisingly hilly island that so effectively shelters Oban Bay. The Sound of Kerrera being such a short stretch of water, it doesn’t occur to me that the ferry might have difficulties today, but the Calmac crew greet me with the news that they are unwilling to carry tourists, in case they can’t get back to the mainland later. I plead my non-tourist status – I’m here to interview someone – and agree to accept the risk.
My only fellow ferry traveller, a Kerrera resident, assures me that the private ferry service from Kerrera Marina to Oban will get me back over. On landing, I decline a quad-bike lift: I’m intrigued by Kerrera’s brand new road and keen to walk it. Half an hour later Rowan greets me outside a lovely rambling old white house and we head in for coffee.
As with so many creative makers that I am meeting on my Island Makers series, Rowan has worked and travelled the world before coming home to found Sea Teas. We discuss how the experiences drawn from such zig zag journeys through life can seem disparate, yet often infuse well together like a good tea blend.
Rowan’s travels have taken her through a Conservation Biology degree at Aberdeen, a Journalism Post-graduate course in Glasgow, an illustration course and, most recently, a Horticulture course at Oban Argyll College. It was during this last that Rowan undertook research into Scottish native plants historically used for in tisanes (herbal teas) and saw the potential to start producing her own teas in Kerrera.
I can easily see how such a treasure trove of knowledge and experience, combined with the beautiful natural flora that surrounds her Kerrera family farm, has informed and enriched the creativity of Sea Teas.
Back at the farm Rowan foraged for locally common herbs like nettle, meadowsweet, mint and dog-rose, bought a stock of plants to grow in her polytunnel and invested in a dehydrator to dry the flowers and seeds. Sea Tea launched in 2019.
On the marketing side of things, partner Robert – a graphic designer by training who now works at Kerrera Marina – designed the Sea Tea labels, and isle20 provided an ideal platform upon which to spread the news to potential customers, especially during lockdown when local outlets were closed and island visitors absent.
After coffee we climb to the top of the house to the Sea Tea HQ, where Rowan’s sister Miriam helps to fill and label tea tins. Inspired by the sight and aroma of all those wonderful herby ingredients, I’m keen to try some, and we drink a cup of Sea Chai by the living room fire. I’m quietly prepared for the blend of star anise, dulce, cardamon, juniper, spearmint, cinnamon, cloves and nettle to not be to my taste, but it’s so deliciously uplifting and warming that I ask for a tin.
Two of the tea blends that especially intrigue me include coco shell. Rowan explains that the shells of cacao beans, discarded during the chocolate making process, can be infused to add a subtly chocolate flavour to tea. Her Cocomint blend of coco shell, mint, kelp, nettle, cinnamon and vanilla smells so yummy that I feel the need of a tin of that too. Suitably stocked up, I walk on up to Kerrera Marina for the promised boat-ride back to Oban. As forecast, the wind is up, the sea choppy. A lively chat with my ferry companions, Robert and Miriam, keeps my mind off the swell. My day out to Kerrera is completed with a very wet walk to Gallanach to retrieve my van and brew up a rejuvenating pot of Sea Chai.