Tea bushes need light, of course, but they don’t like to be in direct sunlight all day long. They prefer some shade from time to time, especially at lower altitudes where temperatures can climb quickly. So growers plant a light canopy to keep their tea bushes happy and give them some respite. This cover is usually made up of plants from the legume family, whose leaves enrich the soil with nitrogen as they decompose. It’s a kind of green manure, and the tea bushes really appreciate it.
In Darjeeling, a region I’m particularly fond of and have visited many times, there are large estates built by the British in the mid to late 19th century, as well as a number of small, local producers who own a few acres or collect the leaves harvested by neighbouring farmers. Some work on abandoned plantations. In these cases, the whole family harvests and then processes the leaves using artisanal methods, sometimes with great success. These initiatives include the Yanki Tea Farm and the Niroula Tea Farm.
One of the trickiest stages in making black tea is achieving the right level of oxidation. The leaves are left to wither for a good ten hours or so, then tossed to bruise them and break down their structure. Then it’s time for the oxidation process, which requires humid conditions. During this stage, the leaves change colour from green to brown. Their aromas also change radically, developing notes of wood, stewed fruit and spices, among many others. When should oxidation be stopped? In Darjeeling, producers use the “second nose” principle. At the beginning of the oxidation process, the tea leaves give off an intense aroma that gradually fades after a few minutes, only to return in full force a while later. This return of aroma is known as the second nose. It signals that it’s time to stop oxidation as the perfect level has been achieved. All that remains is for the leaves to be dried, sorted and packaged.
Today, on the eve of the biggest religious festival in the Indian state of West Bengal, workers at this plantation in the Dooars are on strike. They are demanding an increase in their annual bonus, which they use to buy gifts for their family and friends. The bonus is a significant part of their annual salary. Meanwhile, the tea bushes proudly support the bags and umbrellas. A few hours later, having achieved what they wanted, everyone returns to their belongings and the picking resumes.
In Japan there are wholesale markets where farmers sell their tea leaves. In Shizuoka, you have to get up early and be invited in if you want to see the farmers selling their aracha, or raw tea. The buyers are traders, sometimes farmers themselves, who carry out a series of tests on the leaves before selling them according to a grading system, to meet the demands of their customers. Trading is done quietly. They taste, then negotiate as discreetly as possible, using abacuses.
The Japanese are remarkably ingenious when it comes to harvesting tea. In the rest of the world, the leaves are hand-picked by legions of workers, but in Japan, labour is really expensive and so the growers have to do it themselves. This means using machines, each as well designed as the next. The quality of production is not affected by this mechanisation, as the Japanese are generally meticulous and take great care to do everything properly. Once the leaves have been gathered at the processing site, a sophisticated tool with an electronic eye is used to check that their shape, size, structure and colour are of the required quality.
There are teas grown in the light and there are teas grown in the shade. Shade-grown teas are made from leaves picked from shoots that have been deprived of light for three weeks before harvest, allowing them to develop the amino acids and umami flavour so prized by the Japanese. Japan is the traditional home of shade-grown teas, the most famous of which is Gyokuro. Its intensity and incomparable sweetness literally coat the palate, provided it is brewed correctly, at a very low temperature (50°C) and for just one or two minutes. It is best sipped from a tiny cup, like nectar.
Matcha is another shade-grown tea that has become well known in France, particularly for its use in pastries. It is made from finely ground shade-grown tea.
There’s more to life than tea. There’s also barley and buckwheat. The seeds are roasted and then infused. It’s delicious hot or cold and has always been popular in Japan. In France, these crops are grown in Brittany, which is good because we don’t have to get it from the other side of the world. In the autumn, I’ll be introducing you to Yoann, a self-described “Breton alternative roaster”. By then, the ripe ears of barley will have been cut and the beautiful buckwheat flowers will have had time to go to seed. I hope you all have a wonderful summer.
In Japan, a very orderly country, the tea bushes are tended in the neatest rows. They form a kind of Zen garden, and in Kyoto and many other parts of the archipelago, whenever you see them you just want to sit down and take it all in. The aesthetic is captivating.
One of the things you notice when you visit tea farms in Japan, going from factory to factory, is the age of the farmers. Often these couples represent the fourth, fifth, even sixth generation of tea producers in their family, but when you ask them about the next generation, there’s often no one left to take over. They have few or no children, and the latter are rarely inclined to carry on the family tradition. It’s a huge challenge for tea production in Japan. Of course, the land won’t disappear and the tea bushes probably won’t either: the fields will be taken over by a big tea company. But this mosaic of small producers, who farm an average of around 12 acres, contributes to the rich diversity of tea, as they all work with their preferred cultivars and the plants that are best suited to their terroir. I think it’s important to buy from them for as long as possible, to give the next generation every chance.