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.
Tea has been grown on the island of São Miguel in the Azores for over a hundred years. It has a hot and humid climate, acidic volcanic soil, and a mountainous terrain. That’s all it takes for the tea plant to feel at home here.
You might think that the rules that define the colour of a tea are strict, but this isn’t always the case. Here in the Golden Triangle, the fashion is for Mao Cha, the tea that serves as a base for the various fermented teas known in this part of the world as Pu Erh. Some people let the Mao Cha wither overnight before fixing it with heat, rolling it, then leaving it in the sun for a day. Others, as soon as the leaves are picked, fire them in a wok for about ten minutes before rolling them by hand and leaving them to dry for five to six hours in the sun.
It is not only in China and northern Vietnam that tea leaves are harvested from camellias that have grown tall. In the north of Thailand, a few kilometres from Myanmar, this woman, who belongs to the Karen ethnic group, picks young shoots from old tea bushes that are flourishing in the jungle. These will be used to make maocha, which is then turned into dark tea.
When it comes to picking tea, you have to do it to understand it. It’s difficult to imagine what it feels like to stand for a whole day, sometimes on a steep slope, with a ten- or twenty-kilogram basket on your back. This basket is held in place by a strap across the forehead while the picker quickly plucks the bud and the two young leaves from every stem on the bush with their nimble fingers. The gesture has to be repeated thousands of times and the young shoots must be thrown over the shoulder with a certain dexterity to make sure they land in the basket. Here, yours truly is concentrating on the task. (Photo: Uday Yangya)
No two tea fields are the same, and growing practices vary from one planter to another. As far as pruning is concerned, some thin the tea bushes once a year and level out the branches to form what is known as the plucking table. Others, like our friend Bente in Tanzania, pictured here, use a different pruning method to allow more light to reach the bushes, even the lower branches.
Freshly plucked tea leaves shouldn’t be kept in isolation, or they might start to ferment. As soon as they are harvested they are transported to the factory in bags made from a light, loosely woven material that allows air to circulate. The journey must be as short as possible to prevent the risk of the young shoots undergoing an undesirable change.
Today, I’m only going to focus on the good news! I bought three very rare batches of Darjeeling produced this spring. Nepal has continued to produce tea during lockdown, and as soon as the French postal system is functioning again I will receive some delicious samples. In China, a pre-Qing Ming Huang Shan Mao Feng, a Lu Shan Yun Wu, a Yue Xi Cui Lan and a rare Huo Shan Huang Ya are already on their way. In Japan, after a winter that was long but relatively mild, the harvests are a little late. By mid-May I will have received all the samples and will be able to make a good selection. And to top it all, each of the teas I buy will be sent to the lab before we sell it, to ensure it complies with European standards – unless it already has French “AB” organic certification. This means we can enjoy them with peace of mind, and appreciate all their benefits.