It’s exactly 30 years ago this month that my life changed. Nothing had previously marked me out for a life in the tea trade. Palais des Thés opened its first boutique in March 1987, in a small backstreet in the sixth arrondissement of Paris. Then there were two stores, then three, and gradually the brand was born. Our learning progressed at the same rate. We needed to travel, to meet people. And what can I say about the loyalty of our customers, except that it still touches us just as much. Every time we open a new store, I meet customers who remember the beginning, who have been there from the first day, or thereabouts, and I still feel the same emotion.
30 years have passed, and our enthusiasm is not only intact, it is stronger now than when we started. We marvel at what lies ahead. There is a lot to keep us busy. The more you know about a subject as rich and varied as tea, the more you realise just how much you still have to learn. For tea, like for wine, one lifetime is not enough. I’ll get back to you in another 30 years. Before then, we’re preparing for new tastings, meeting new people, discovering new things. We’re ready to continue learning about tea and the people who make it, doing the best we can to bring you what I would love to be the finest selection of premium teas in the world. And doing so with the greatest respect for people and our planet. Not harming either of them; on the contrary, thinking far ahead, about those who will come after us.
And as we watch spring awakening, as we look ahead to the next 30 years, here are some tea plants in flower for you.
Pets are wonderful creatures that can show the greatest humanity at times when our fellow humans may be lacking. We find these friends to be so sensitive and loyal that the description of animal does not do them justice.
In China, all tea connoisseurs and enthusiasts who use the Gong Fu Cha to prepare their brew have one or more “tea pets”. The tea pet is a terracotta figurine placed on the tea boat, over which tea is poured from time to time, to share special moments with it. Over the years the figurine acquires a patina through repeated dousing. The tea pet can be an animal or a human figure, as seen here.
A tea pet, or company being, shares your day-to-day life. Like other pets, it is always in an agreeable mood and is good at listening. You know where to find it. It is always there for you, loyal and happy.
I’m writing this in Kolkata, a city I love, and which deserves its nickname, City of Joy. The former Calcutta is also a city of tea. Most plantations in Darjeeling and Assam have an office here, as well as a tasting room. When I don’t have time to go to Darjeeling, I spend a couple of days here, which gives me a perfect panorama of the teas available. I go round visiting each of my friends in charge of exporting tea, and ask them as many questions as I can. If they’ve received samples of tea from the mountains, we taste them together. Right now, I can tell you that the situation is not good in Darjeeling. There hasn’t been a drop of rain since October. The temperature is two degrees higher than normal but, without water, the buds are growing at a rate that is alarming the planters.
Once I’ve finished my meetings, I walk down to the river and watch the waters of the Ganga flow past. Howrah Bridge is a symbol of the capital of West Bengal. I imagine all those little lights as prayers to make the rain come.
Last week I talked about how the mixing of tea leaves by Japanese co-operatives can limit the range of flavours in the country’s teas, but there are also some very positive developments coming from Japan. For example, a few decades ago, the country could be described as mono-cultivar: the vast majority of growers used the Yabukita variety. Happily, today, there are an increasing number of cultivars used in Japan, such as sae-midori, oku-hikari and asatsuyu. A greater range of cultivars means that once the tea is infused, it produces a wider palette of aromas and flavours. And that is good news for tea lovers.