“Darjeeling” both refers to the tea plantations stretching out on thousands of hectares and the city you can see on this picture and where from I’m writing to you today. It’s a large town of hundreds of thousands people, or, in other words, a village on an Indian scale. It’s located at an altitude of 2100 meters and here you can see it under a rather mild sky if you consider that in Tibetan “Darje Ling” means “the stormy country”. The city is on a slope and when you walk around it, you actually spend more time climbing the narrow stairs snaking in and out the houses than crossing leaning streets. Tea is all there is, to such an extent that people don’t know where to build houses anymore, yet necessary to provide accommodation for an increasing population.
I’m leaving for Darjeeling in a few days. A long trip, hours of plane and four wheel drive. But I go through these hours smoothly as I’m so happy to see these mountains again. Once a year I take with me several people working for Le Palais des Thés. This year Fabienne, in charge of Le Palais des Thés in Lille, Stéphanie from Grenoble, Maud from Paris’ rue-Vieille-du-Temple are coming with me among others. I’ll soon introduce them to you.
We are first staying at Tumsong Tea Estate, an organically certified tea plantation of Darjeeling which has such a British cottage (photo) ! It’s a real pleasure to live in such a great house, nestled in the mountains as it is and exquisitely comfortable. All the more so as Rajiv Gupta, the plantation’s manager, keeps an eye on everything and is very concerned of your well-being. We visit his property together, from the factory to the nursery, without forgetting the river’s edge where it’s nice having a picnic.
These very British cottages are very common in Darjeeling: in each plantation the manager has a similar building, only the size and the style sometimes differ. You can easily stay there in Tumsong if you wish to as contrarily to most plantations, here tourists interested in tea are welcome for one or several nights (www.chiabari.com).
We are also thinking of organizing classes included in Tea School program. Anyone interested?
Tea growing has massively increased in Yunnan over the past 40 years. At the time, it was decided to step up production and increase the cultivation areas. And things moved very quickly, like often in China. In a very short time, all the trees were chopped down and not a single one was left. And if the mountains were left in place it’s only because they were not causing any trouble. As you can imagine, the landscape underwent a major transformation: as far as the eye could see, there wasn’t a single copse, not a single tree top, not a single cluster of trees. Just tea plants, wherever you looked.
The result was not only staggering to the eye, but it also had an effect on the soil. Rain became scarce and erosion increased. The result of this large-scale deforestation and years of drought was that yields tumbled.
But the Chinese know how to adapt quickly when needed. So as soon as they realized the gravity of their action, they began replanting trees. It now gives us this lovely landscape, somewhere between Jinghong and Menghai. Note the young trees here and there, bringing shade and humidity to the tea plants and pleasing the eye.
On a tea plantation, tea plants are not the only ones that need care and attention: the trees do too. If you want their leaves to give a little shade to the camelias, the trees have to be prevented from growing too tall. So from time to time, they have to be pruned severley, like here near Ivy Hills (Sri Lanka), to be kept low and start up again with renewed vigor.
Once the tea is infused you have a wait a little bit of time before enjoying it. I grab this opportunity to smell the wet tea leaves and look around the tasting room flooded with northern light. While in the teacup the temperature goes from the infusion temperature (around 85 – 90 degrees for a black tea) to the tasting temperature (around 50 degrees), I take out my camera and turn around the teacups searching for the best possible angle. There’s no hurry here in Barnsbeg (India), life goes on slowly. I take a picture of the tasting set just for the pleasure of capturing a shimmer or a colour, a shadow or a line on the teacup’s surface. And my thoughts go on drifting, just like a travelling wave.
This is call taking time. The time for tea, simply.
In Taiwan, people take great care of semi-fermented teas (wu longs) left to wither outside. The grower first buy an electrical system of open-weave canvases that are moved across to shade the leaves when the sunlight gets too intense. Tea is then aired: it is raked very carefully, for hours, to prevent the leaves from starting to ferment.
Some tea plantations run by the British are so vast that several thousand people can live there, scattered across several hundred hectares. In southern India, like here in Thiashola, groups of buildings are home to one, two or three families. These houses form small villages where social life plays an important role. Although the buildings belong to the plantation, they are made available to the families as long as they work on the land. So this means that most houses are handed down from generation to generation.
When we attend professional tea tastings, there is a great number of teas to assess. It can range from three or four to several dozen. Sometimes the teas we taste are all quite similar, like here in Colombo (Sri Lanka). They come from the same area, and you go from one to another, comparing them in turn. First you smell the various infused leaves, then you examine each liquor. In the trade jargon, we call the infused leaf an “infusion”, and the contents of the cup, the “liquor”. (To know more about it: see the article To choose tea, you need to have a good nose).
The dry tea leaf is also presented so that you can look at it, feel and touch it, and get a complete picture of the particular batch you are tasting.