To produce a high-quality tea, you must start by harvesting the leaves carefully; in other words, picking off the end shoot, the bud and the next two leaves. If you take off more leaves, the quality will suffer. So it is important to train the people doing the harvesting and to value their work.
In most tea-producing countries, the best teas are plucked by hand. This means that growing high quality tea often requires the participation of many men and women. Not only is harvesting the leaves a meticulous task, but sorting them just before they are packed and dispatched is also done by hand. The work demands incredible patience.
After rice, tea is the agricultural resource that employs the greatest number of people around the world.
The lunch break offers a special opportunity to sit down with the tea pluckers and get to know them. They don’t often get to see buyers, and are even less likely to have a conversation with them. It doesn’t take long before shyness turns into spontaneity. These are special moments which I enjoy very much.
Vertiginous slopes and lingering mists form the scenery of Darjeeling. Out walking, a tea plucker appears in the thick fog. She climbs amongst the tea plants with astonishing agility. Poobong, a long-abandoned and inaccessible plantation, is gradually coming back to life. I am visiting it for the first time.
It is difficult to imagine the amount of work that goes into making the tea we drink. To produce one kilo of a top quality jasmine tea, for example, it takes 2.5 kilos of jasmine flowers, no less. With 100 flowers, you can make just 25 grams. So no fewer than 10,000 flowers, individually picked by hand, are needed to scent a kilo of tea. And the plucking of flowers in the time-honoured tradition, which I witnessed last week in southern China, sometimes takes place in scorching temperatures.
Sometimes the people who harvest tea don’t have the necessary equipment to process the leaves. In this case, they sell their crop to another farmer who is able to process it.
This is what happens in the south of Sri Lanka, where each tea factory dispatches vehicles to collect bags from small producers.
The rooibos harvest has begun, and I am happy to be here. The harvest lasts less than two months. South Africa is the only country that produces rooibos, a plant sometimes known as “red tea”, but which is not a tea at all.
Rooibos is rich in antioxidants and is completely free of caffeine. It is my favourite drink before going to bed.