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.
These tea pickers have less to fear from Coronavirus than others. They walk to work, they move about in single file, they keep a good distance between themselves, and what’s more, they work outside. Sadly, this isn’t enough in a country of more than a billion inhabitants, and now the entire Indian population must stay at home. Let’s hope that we can banish this virus quickly, and get back to savouring their country’s delicious teas.
In the region known as the Golden Triangle, you can find tea plants that are not quite like the others. Instead of being pruned at a low level to make it easier to pick the leaves, they are left to grow like trees. When harvest time comes, the pickers must climb up into the camellias, some of which are several hundred years old. The leaves from these trees are particularly sought-after to make Pu Erhs and dark teas.
Harvesting tea using shears poses a problem in terms of quality, as the stems get cut too, instead of just the shoot and the two next leaves. For a high-quality tea, nothing surpasses picking by hand. When, during my travels, I see someone using shears, I talk to the planter to find out why this is. Often, it’s due to a lack of workers. Another common situation is that the tea is picked by hand in the best season, and then shears are used for the lesser-quality harvests, and these leaves will be used for tea bags.
When you prepare a cup of tea, you may find yourself wanting to know more about it. What sort of landscape did it grow in? Who are the people that grew and processed it? I hope to answer some of those questions in my blog! For fans of teas from northern Thailand (Milky Oolong, for example), here are the faces of the Mae Salong tea pluckers, hard at work harvesting the leaves.
How much longer will tea be harvested by hand in India, where there is ongoing conflict over employment conditions? The pickers are demanding justified pay rises, but the plantations are only just profitable, while some are even loss-making. Tea is already sold at a high price without the benefit being passed on to local populations. Do we risk seeing mechanical harvesting replace manual picking due to a lack of workers? And what will be the consequences on quality? Or are we moving towards plantations being turned into cooperatives so that everyone has a stake in them and can live decently on their wages? These questions have not yet been answered.
In South Africa, the only country that produces Rooibos, 350 farmers grow it as a crop. Australia and California (United States) tried to grow Rooibos, but failed.
Rooibos is harvested when temperatures are high, by workers who often come from neighbouring countries.
In most tea-producing countries, tea leaves are harvested by hand. Japan is an exception, the main reason being the high cost of manpower. However, the sophisticated machinery used by Japanese farmers allows them to be very precise when harvesting. Only the young shoots are picked, which are then sorted with the most rigorous standards, in the factory, using machines with electronic eyes.
Plucking tea leaves by hand is labour-intensive, but manual harvesting is a mark of quality. Some research centres, like here in northern India, are working to optimise mechanisation. The bushes are pruned in a different way, and they are working to identify which type of mechanical cutting will result in the most abundant crops. I don’t have to tell you that I fear this future mechanisation, although uniquely in the case of Japan, it has already been the practice for a long time, and doesn’t affect the quality of the tea due to the great care taken by the farmers in that country.
(Photo : Laurence Jouanno)