The low sun illuminates these bags filled with freshly plucked tea leaves, creating a contrasting effect of light and shadow. The men work quickly, emptying the bags and spreading the leaves out on withering trays, so that there is no risk of them fermenting.
In some regions of Sri Lanka, tea is harvested at this time of year.
There are few places in the world where tea is harvested from full-sized tea plants. On most plantations the camellia bushes are maintained at waist height. However, in regions where Pu Ers are produced, as well as here on Feng Huang mountain (China), the leaves of large tea plants are considered to have a superior aromatic quality.
If you have never tasted them, I suggest you try Dan Cong Wu Long as well as the oxidised Dan Cong – both are exceptionally subtle. They come from these large tea plants and were plucked by Mrs Huang, pictured here hard at work.
With the weather we’ve had this June, there has been no need to worry about sunstroke. This is not the case everywhere. For example, in Darjeeling this season, when the pluckers have brought out their umbrellas it has been to protect themselves from the sun, not the rain. The women have good taste in their choice of bright, varied colours, making this landscape very similar to a cup of Darjeeling itself. Its floral, flowery, vegetal notes are a real treat for the palate.
At the end of every morning and afternoon during the harvest, the women gather to get their leaves weighed. It’s an opportunity to relax, and everyone talks, unless they want to listen to what the others have to say. Of course, if they find a stranger like myself among them, as they did that day, their tongues wag even faster, accompanied by plenty of laughter.
While listening to their colleagues joking, the pluckers run their hands through the leaves to check the quality of their work. The pretty red and white fabric these women wear on their heads is typical of their region: Assam.
When it is time to take a break, the pluckers in Darjeeling gather in the shade to drink tea or eat their meals. We would all love to be able to have lunch every day in such a peaceful setting…
These shelters are also where the pluckers take the leaves to be collected and weighed. Once gathered together, the leaves are loaded onto a trailer and a tractor promptly tows them away to the factory for processing.
In the middle of the day, as soon as the plucking is finished, the workers gather to get their bags weighed.
Here, at Dufflating (Assam), everyone waits in turn and one by one hangs their bag of tea leaves on the mobile scales. The supervisor records the worker’s name and the weight of the bag, which will determine the pay for that day. You can see that the bags are made of netting, to prevent the leaves from oxidising. They must remain in perfect condition all the way to the factory, otherwise the tea will be spoiled.
In Assam, as soon as harvesting is finished, the pluckers assemble, men on one side, women on the other, and they set off with their precious baskets to the place where they will be weighed. Some women hold their baskets under their arms, but most rest them on their heads. A rolled-up piece of cloth placed precisely on the crown of the head serves to support the basket. These splendidly colourful fabrics look like crowns, making their wearers look like queens, I think.
In general, good tea should be plucked by hand. The leaf bud and the first two leaves on each stem are plucked between the thumb and index finger, with a precise, rapid movement.
It is best to avoid the use of clippers, although they are commonly used in some regions of the world where tea is produced with less emphasis on quality. Although the farmers in the Rize region of Turkey are very friendly, hospitable people, it has to be said that their harvesting methods massacre the tea.
Here, I have dared to give them a helping hand and I’m a little ashamed, I must admit, to be caught red-handed using their tool.
There is quite a hierarchy among the people in charge of harvesting tea in Assam. This is true on the large plantations, anyway; there are also independent plots owned by small producers.
On the large plantations, the manager supervises the assistant managers, who organise the babus, whose role is to oversee the work of the sardars, who themselves are responsible for supervising the team of workers.
In this photo taken on the Dufflating plantation you can admire two sardars, who don’t look particularly approachable on first glance. But perhaps they are just reflecting, in their serious expressions, the position of authority they hold.
In many countries, the men and women who pluck tea leaves wear a type of sleeve made from a light canvas, which covers part of the arm.
Camellia is quite a tough shrub, and at the end of the day, without this protection, which can be worn directly on bare skin or over the top of a garment, the pluckers’ arms would be covered in scratches.
I expect this young woman from Yunnan, who looks rather stylish beneath her straw hat, would agree.