Naturally, I have emotions. I never return from my travels unmoved. Yes, in the strictest sense my job consists of visiting tea fields, talking with producers, tasting, and understanding how the tea is made. But in practice my work doesn’t stop there. It’s not just about tea leaves, plants, machines, flavours. Most of all, tea is about people. Men and women. Smiles, surprises, joy, pain, laughter, fear, curiosity, anxiety, fun, desires, challenges, suffering, pride, hopes and dreams… The people I meet up in the mountains give me all this. So as soon as I see a familiar landscape, I feel moved. I think back to the time I was there before, to the people. I remember what I learnt about life in those places. I remember my feelings. I don’t wear armour when I travel. A journey is like a shipwreck, and people whose boat has not sunk will never know the sea, wrote Nicolas Bouvier, a writer I love. So, sometimes I sink. I return a different person from when I set out; I’m not exactly the same on my return. And sometimes I don’t want to come back. I want to lose myself. People’s lives touch me, their emotions touch me. I have this incredible opportunity to meet people who are different from me, different in every respect – in their culture, religion, language, ethnicity. Different, but the same in that we are all human. And often, when I come back down from a mountain after spending several days up there, I need to rest. To take a break before I reach the valley. I need to sit at the roadside or at the edge of a field before going back to the city, before forgetting, forgetting why I left this place I already loved. When I come back down from my mountains, I need to stop, take a breath, not let things go too quickly. I need to dream, to cry, sometimes, to be aware of what I’m leaving, to not be in a rush. I simply need to breathe, to fill my lungs one last time with blue air; to live.
Identifying tea and food pairings is a serious business. By this I mean identifying a tea to accompany a dish so that you create a happy combination for both protagonists. And that’s where it gets difficult. For example, if I pair a Genmaicha with a hazelnut financier, it only works if the tea’s vegetal, toasted notes enhance the cake, and also if, having consumed a morsel of the financier, the Japanese green tea is revealed in a new light, to its advantage. A few weeks ago I spent a solid six hours in the company of chef Michel Lentz, at the Baccarat Crystal Room in Moscow, tasting with him a profusion of bouchées, tartlets, crèmes, madeleines, financiers, meringues, ice creams and sorbets, made by him, accompanied by an equal number of teas, so that together we could find many happy combinations. I would particularly like to mention the crème caramel, with memories of childhood, which we enjoyed with a Dan Cong for the top part, while the liquid at the bottom of the ramekin was the most successful pairing with a Jin Zhen, with warm notes of stewed fruit, wax and honey.
Some tea plantations have rather ordinary origins, and the Kuwapani plantation is one of them. A few years ago there was a rundown angora rabbit farm in Kuwapani that was only just limping along. I’m talking about the farm but I’m sure the same could have been said for the poor rabbits, bred for their fur alone. The owner saw a tea plantation being established on the hill opposite, followed by another. He observed the harvesting and processing of the leaves. He developed a taste for what his neighbours, Jun Chiyabari and Guranse, produced, and he witnessed their growing success. Then, one day, he decided to change his business, radically. He opened up the hutches, installed machines in his main building to process the tea leaves (rollers, dryers and so on), planted his land with tea, recruited an experienced, talented man to oversee the work, and a few years later the Kuwapani plantation had made its name in the world of tea. I heard this story while I was staying at Kuwapani and asked the owner about an object that had been intriguing me. On the mantelpiece in the living room sits a magnificent porcelain rabbit.
This photo may seem odd, and rightly so: these aren’t tea leaves, but mint. However, this photo perfectly illustrates an aspect of my work. Many small producers around the world grow tea, harvesting and selling the fresh leaves to a co-operative, a farmer bigger than they are, or a company, who then processes the leaves. These small producers can sometimes have strong economic power, when demand for leaves is higher than supply. But more often than not they’re dependent on the buyer. So it’s always better if a small producer makes only part of their income from tea, and grows other crops alongside it such as potatoes, ginger, fruit and so on. This protects them from fluctuations in the price of tea, and gives them greater peace of mind.
I was incredibly fortunate, when I woke yesterday without knowing exactly where I was, to discover this sublime view from my bed. I’d arrived in Ella late the night before, from Ratnapura, and without the moon I couldn’t get a sense of the landscape. I was woken at 5am by the birds singing, as well as the shrill cries of the squirrels, who were celebrating daybreak in their own way. I went out onto the terrace to enjoy the sight, and I stayed there, taking it all in. This mountain is called Little Adam’s Peak.
I hadn’t been to this beautiful country for a year, and I’m happy to see that in the mountains in the centre of the island, a few factories that used to make teas industrially with a rotorvane machine, which is very rough on the leaves, are now at least trying to make teas the orthodox way, a method that is more respectful of the leaves. They are just attempts, I know, but it’s a promising sign and it’s a pleasure to see that tea planters want to try out new methods, make better teas; that they are curious, and want to improve their quality.