Tea is not just about landscapes, however beautiful they may be; it is not just about the plants or the leaves. Above all it is about the men and women who harvest, handle, analyse and select it. From Harendong to Semarang via the Bandung Research Centre, here are a few people who, in one way or another, make their living from tea or simply enjoy drinking it.
Tea can be picked by hand rather than mechanically, and it makes all the difference. It is difficult to harvest the leaves properly with shears (except in Japan where they have developed high-precision tools) and claim any quality. It is true that a hand-picked tea will cost ten to a hundred times more than an industrially produced tea, and sometimes the difference is even greater. But it is important to remember that fine teas provide an opportunity to establish a virtuous circle: the higher the income of the producers, the more these farmers can invest in the transmission of skills. They will seek to obtain quality rather than quantity; they will employ more people who will become more connected to their land and their rural way of life. A great tea thus offers everyone the opportunity to live in harmony with nature.
Rarely have I seen such spectacular plantations as those around the city of Bandung on the island of Java. The landscapes are breathtakingly beautiful with the mountains, the mist and the magnificent trees with their delicate foliage. Sunlight floods the perfectly aligned rows of tea bushes that follow the contours of the hills as far as the eye can see.
For once, the tea route crosses the (Indian) ocean. This is an opportunity to see how volcanic – and therefore acidic – the soil on the island of Java is. This is important for the tea plant, which thrives in this type of soil, as well as the humidity and heat.
If you take a Camelia sinensis leaf and pour hot water over it, you’l get nothing from it. The leaf needs to be roughened up first in order to release its aromas and flavours when it comes into contact with water. Immediately after picking, the producer will process the leaves, which removes much of their moisture and eventually breaks down their structure without breaking the leaves themselves, so that the juices contained within their many cells can be extracted. This is one of the machines that’s used here in West Java (Indonesia). A cloth sack is packed with tea leaves then squeezed hard between two metal discs. This tool is widely used in Taiwan for making Oolongs, and is also used to make green teas that are rolled into balls.
In the Azores, attempts are being made to produce delicious teas from hand-picked leaves and particularly delicate pluckings. Experiments are taking place on small plots nestled in the hills on the island of Sao Miguel. At the agricultural research institute, Clara takes her precious harvests through all the stages of tea production. She achieves remarkable results using a variety of cultivars. Although the quantity of tea produced is small at the moment, I’m looking forward to helping to spread the word about the incredible teas made by Clara and the island’s future farmers.
Mint likes moisture and only grows in the desert thanks to irrigation systems. In Morocco, water is drawn from deep wells. In Egypt it comes from the Nile, of course. A mint plant gives a good yield for three years and is then replaced with cuttings or runners that are picked out and planted. A few months later, they are ready to be harvested again.
Egypt and Morocco are major producers of spearmint, which is the variety used to make their popular mint tea, a symbol of hospitality in North Africa. The mint is harvested using traditional methods and a simple sickle. The bushes are pruned three or four times a year on irrigated land that merges with the desert. Sometimes a motorised machine – a three-wheeled shear with arms and a seat – breaks the silence.
There are many weed control techniques used to keep down plants that grow between the rows of tea bushes. One of the most natural approaches is to let animals graze in the fields. In Southern India, you might come across a type of bison that keeps the farmers happy. Here in the Azores, on the Gorreana plantation, beautiful goats do the job.
Some tea fields overlook the sea, their green merging into blue. You see this in Japan, for example, as well as in other places around the world like here in the Azores. The blue of a lake that has formed in an ancient crater also makes me think of getting away. I’ve been surrounded by green for most of the year, and now it’s time for me to take some time off I’ll be replacing it with blue. Whatever the colour, I wish you a happy summer and I look forward to being back with you at the beginning of September for new journeys and adventures.