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’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.
Following my last post, I received some comments that I thought would be interesting to discuss. Firstly, I’d like to say that I have a deep affection for India and have visited the Darjeeling region dozens of times, which shows how much it means to me. And Palais des Thés has taken many initiatives over more than 30 years to promote the wonderful teas from this part of the world.
I’d like to stress that this pesticide problem, which should never happen with tea, especially bearing the AB organic label, doesn’t just concern India. The same thing could be happening in other countries. I have the following comments to share with you from producer friends:
– The pesticide in question is not easy to find, and its use in tea has become extremely rare. On the other hand, DDT has been sprayed by the authorities in very isolated cases to control malaria in particularly infested areas. These sprays, which would be better if substitutes were used, can end up on surrounding crops.
– The creation of planted barriers between roads and fields, and around homes, has been the subject of much discussion with regional health authorities. This is an easy solution to implement in cases where it’s essential to combat the presence of mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite.
– Sometimes, the person in charge of certification is too close to the plot owner, which can undermine the professionalism of the work and result in inadequate inspection.
I think it’s important to point out something that few people are aware of: AB-type organic certification is essentially based on the examination of various documents, and the organisations in charge of these certifications don’t carry out regular laboratory analyses. Our health and that of our customers is paramount, which is why I’m approaching this subject in the simplest and most transparent way possible.
The most famous Japanese roasted tea, Hojicha (or Houjicha) is made from Bancha tea harvested in the autumn. After being processed using the traditional Japanese green tea method (steaming, shaping, drying), the leaves are roasted at 150°C for five minutes and then at 300°C for another five minutes. Nowadays, Hojicha is consumed more in those parts of the country where tea doesn’t grow, i.e. north of Tokyo, mainly on the island of Hokkaido. For food lovers, serve Hojicha lukewarm or at room temperature and pair its woody, animal notes with a Pont-l’Evêque, Livarot or any other soft cheese with a washed or bloomy rind.
In Japan, the most prestigious harvest of the year takes place between late April and early May. This is when the famous Ichibancha, or first-flush teas, are made. The next plucking takes place in early June. This produces some interesting teas, but they aren’t up to the standard of the previous harvest. Here, on the outskirts of Shizuoka, I’m taking part in my own way, riding a Kawasaki that’s very different from the ones you see on our city streets. Because of the cost of labour, Japan is one of the few countries in the world that uses machines to pick its tea leaves.
Au Japon, la récolte la plus prestigieuse de l’année a lieu entre fin avril et début mai. C’est à ce moment-là que l’on manufacture les fameux ichibancha, ou thés de la première récolte. Au début du mois de juin a lieu la taille suivante. Elle donne des thés intéressants mais qui ne sont toutefois pas au niveau des précédents. Ici, dans les environs de Shizuoka, je participe à ma manière aux opérations, au volant d’une Kawasaki assez différente de celles que l’on peut voir circuler dans les rues de nos villes. Pour des raisons de coûts de main-d’œuvre, le Japon est l’un des rares pays au monde à avoir mécanisé ses opérations de cueillette.
Every year, the situation in Darjeeling gets worse. I don’t mean the political situation, which has been precarious for decades, but the tea market. Every year, the first harvests get a little more expensive, but the tea doesn’t get any better. Plantation workers rightly complain about low wages. Paradoxically, the owners claim that they are unprofitable or even losing money because of soaring costs. We are seeing gardens close. For the record, the plantation “owners” rent the land from the state. And the planter, who runs the plantation, is just an ordinary employee. Sometimes they leave an estate when they haven’t been paid for months. To top it all off, far more Darjeeling tea is sold around the world than is produced, due to shady deals of all kinds, not least in the region itself.
Indian producers are quick to accuse the Nepalese of all sorts of evil, such as copying Darjeeling teas, but they are mistaken. For a start, Indians themselves import teas from Nepal and market them as Darjeelings. And the Nepalese have been producing delicious teas for the last decade or two, often of a similar standard to Darjeeling, if not better, and at half the price. It’s not counterfeiting, it’s competition. What’s wrong with that? Nepal has a lower standard of living and independent farmers who work long hours, which may partly explain things. Either way, Darjeeling will have to reinvent itself. (To be continued…)
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.
In Colombia, tea grows in the Andes; more specifically, in the region of Cali, the capital of salsa. But there is more to this area of the Cauca Valley, south-east of the capital Bogotá, than dancing. Once known for its sugar cane, the district’s most famous crops now include coffee and cocoa. And surely tea too, one day, which creates beautiful landscapes here. Carlota, who oversees the region’s only plantation, has a principle: the plots cover a maximum of five hectares and are surrounded by the jungle, in order to protect the biodiversity that is so important to her. Carlota’s whole life revolves around her love of nature and her love of the jungle where she has chosen to live. She is devoted to her tea crops because they allow a whole community to live in these mountains and help preserve this unique, fragile and incredibly rich environment. It is a truly special place.