With all the demonstrations and riots going on in France right now, these might seem like dark times. Tea has a dark side too. Pu-er cakes are made from fermented tea, or dark tea, as the Chinese called it over a thousand years ago. After the leaves are steamed, they are compressed into a brick, a cake, or a more rustic bird’s nest. These compressed teas improve with time. To drink them, you break the side of the block and the leaves crumble off. They can now be brewed, preferably in a gaiwan, several times in a row, until they have given us all they have to give.
Yanki, a lesser-known producer
Darjeeling tea is not only grown on the large estates created by the British at the height of the Empire. Today, as well as the 83 officially registered plantations, there are a number of local initiatives, small and lesser-known factories that sometimes produce really good teas. Yanki is one of them, and near the village of Mirik, Allan and his family are doing great things with tea leaves. While most Darjeeling planters come from all over India, Allan’s family are indigenous to these mountains and speak the same language as the locals: Nepali. They buy the fresh leaves from the surrounding villagers and use them to make their wonderful teas.
Yanki, une production confidentielle
Darjeeling ne se limite pas à ces grands domaines créés par les Anglais à une époque où le soleil ne se couchait jamais sur les territoires de Sa Majesté. De nos jours, au-delà des 83 plantations officielles et dûment enregistrées, il existe diverses initiatives locales, de petites manufactures plus confidentielles qui produisent parfois de très jolis thés. Yanki, par exemple, fait partie de celles-ci, et du côté du village de Mirik, Allan et sa famille travaillent la feuille de thé avec succès. Tandis que la plupart des planteurs de Darjeeling arrivent de diverses régions de l’Inde, eux sont originaires de ces montagnes et parlent la même langue que leurs habitants, le népali. Allan et les siens achètent les feuilles fraîches des villageois alentour et à partir de ces feuilles ils mettent au point des crus fameux.
Six months without rain
In early spring, the first young shoots appear on the tea bushes. Here in Darjeeling, they arrive after a long winter when the camellia plant goes into dormancy. This lasts for about four months, from mid-November to early March, depending on the weather conditions.
This year, the Himalayan foothills, where the British decided to grow tea less than two centuries ago, have experienced a drought. Six months with little or no rain due to climate change, linked by some to global warming, by others to deforestation. The consequences are reflected in the figures and by mid-March, production was expected to be half of last year’s. However, there are no concerns when it comes to quality. Slow growth results in higher quality and more intense aromas and flavours.
Making sure that drinking our tea is always a pleasure
I am here in India for the start of the spring harvest. It takes a certain number of days from when we first taste a delicate new-season tea, then buy it and have it flown to France, to when you can buy it in your favourite shop, and this process can’t go any faster. Once the tea arrives in our warehouses, unless it is already certified organic by an accredited organisation, we then send a sample of the tea to an independent laboratory to test it for residues of over two hundred pesticides. For certified organic teas we carry out spot checks. Palais des Thés is the only company in France to apply such strict criteria, assuring its community of tea lovers that its batches meet the highest health and safety standards to ensure their wellbeing when enjoying its teas.
Photo : Alexandre Denni.
More premium teas in more variety
One of the questions I’m asked most is whether the quality of the tea is declining as the number of Palais des Thés stores increases. The question concerns the finest quality, rare, small-batch teas. Let me answer it here. At the moment, we only select one premium tea for every hundred or more batches we get sent. Of course, not all of the teas we receive are worthy of selection, but many could qualify. However, we never ask a producer who has only made 50 kilos of an amazing tea to increase the size of their batch. This could compromise the quality. But there is nothing to stop us from selecting more batches and offering them in just a few stores. This means that the range of premium teas we offer will continue to evolve over time, but also in terms of where they are available. It is a pleasure to find different teas of such quality from one Palais des Thés store to another.
In Malawi, the Satemwa plantation is celebrating its 100th anniversary
In Malawi, the Satemwa plantation is celebrating its 100th anniversary. It took me a long time to start exploring Africa – I was already busy in Asia. But after receiving many requests and to satisfy my own curiosity, to see if I could find tea as good in Africa as in Asia even though the plantations are much younger, I went there. I started in Malawi, a country of rare beauty: tea fields bathed in a different light, red earth, unfamiliar faces. The children were the same as I meet everywhere, running after me, bursting with energy and laughter. Alex, the planter for three generations now, has created a space in the impressive building to develop rare teas. It is the start of an exciting venture and a wonderful discovery for me. Happy anniversary to all at Satemwa.
Magnificent vistas as far as the eye can see
In Peru, to reach some of the tea plantations you must follow a long, winding, vertiginous mountain path that threatens to collapse at any moment. But your dedication will be rewarded by magnificent vistas that extend as far as the eye can see.
Tea isn’t blooming in Peru
In Peru, tea is so cheap and in such low demand that half the production is sold to florists. Tea branches stay in bloom for a long time. It is a depressing situation for the farmers, who are deprived of precious income because of a lack of expertise and demand. These would allow them to earn a decent living and develop their business. It is my role, and that of Palais des Thés, to help them produce better, even excellent teas, and to promote their work.
Beyond the Andes
To reach Peru’s tea plantations, which are located in the Amazonian region of the country, you must cross the Andes. From Cuzco, you head to Machu Picchu before setting out from the famous site to complete the journey across the mountains, one after another. Beyond this rugged horizon lies the Amazon plains, and the tea fields. What future delights might we find there?