On the Terai plain (area straddling Nepal and India), I’ve seen them use strange crosses to mark the height of tea plants. The cross is stuck into the ground and only the shoots growing above the horizontal bar are plucked. It makes this cheerful plucker look a bit like a tea missionary.
In different regions of the world, tea pluckers put on a wide cloth tube around their arm to protect their sleeve. A Camellia shrub proves to be quite tough and could easily widen a stitch of a fabric or simply tear a hole in it. This Chinese countryman I’m photographing unawares at work wouldn’t deny this.
Tea can be difficult to transport when the ground slopes. I already talked to you about it a few weeks ago, I explained how the horse could be a precious help to transport tea in Nepal (see the article). For the men and women who work on the plantations, it can also be very difficult sometimes to haul up their baskets full of tea leaves. All the more so since the garden where the leaves are harvested and the building where they are then processed are not necessarily at the same height.
Some tea plantations have thus developed a mechanical system we could compare to a ski-tow, to transport the bags full of tea leaves. At Namring Tea Estates (India) for example, tea pluckers hang two or three bags at the end of a rope fixed onto a cable, which are then hauled up mechanically. A solution making tasks easier for men and gaining time as well.
In this photo, Mister Chaudhury and one of his assistants seem to be gazing at these sacks climbing unaided.
In some regions of the world, tea plucking is only done by women, while men are responsible for other jobs. It’s the case in India and central Sri Lanka, where men employed on the plantations tend the soil and prune the tea plants. Some people will tell you the reason for this is probably that women are more nimble-fingered and take better care of the fragile and precious leaves.
But most of the time, like here in the north of Ilam Valley, eastern Nepal, opposite Darjeeling accross the border, the village men and women do the same tasks, including tea plucking. It is also the case in China and Taiwan. And in Japan, it is not rare to see a man carefully plucking the tea leaves and a woman behind the wheel of a tractor.
Is there really a reason for these practices? Well, let’s say that where the British used to be and where there are large tea plantations, the roles of men and women are different and the work is not always shared out in a way that seems fairest to us.
In Japan, tea harvesting is highly mechanized. In the Shizuoka region, which is on the Makinohara plateau and where Sencha teas are produced, you come across some machines that have a very strange way of talking to the tea leaves. And yet these sharp, deft steel fingers don’t harm them. With extreme precision, this strange harvester takes just the most tender parts of the shoots.
On some tea plantations, they use a long bamboo stick to ensure a quality harvest. This photo taken in the Nilgiri (India) shows how it is used: the plucker has placed it in front of her and only takes the shoots that extend beyond it. This prevents the plucking of the previous season’s leaves, which are tougher and don’t produce good tea.
When you harvest the tea leaves, you must take great care to pick the right parts. Only the tea bud and the two adjacent leaves give you true quality. Sometimes, to prevent the tea pluckers from taking too much off, they are given a short piece of bamboo. This helps them pick just the right length of shoot and is a reminder of the standards of excellence required (like here at the Namring Tea Estate, Darjeeling, India).
In China, in Yunnan province where they produce Pu Er, tea plants are sometimes left to grow into proper trees. It is thought that the leaves of these “wild” tea plants are better. But this makes harvesting perilous: the pluckers have to climb a ladder into the tree and harvest buds and tea leaves, while remaining balanced on the top. Impressive.
In Ilam (Nepal), horses are still used to transport tea leaves. These two young men have walked for two hours to reach the place where the tea is processed, so they can sell their fresh tea leaves. Hanging against the horses’ flanks are sacks weighing around 20 kilos each. They try to avoid making this long journey on a rainy day, otherwise the cargo can get damaged as it begins to ferment.
Let’s get back to tea and how it is harvested. When the camellia is fully grown, the youngest leaves are plucked. In this photo you can see what is known as the “fine plucking”: the removal of the bud and the next two tea leaves. This is almost the best thing that can be done with tea: it’s a symbol of perfection.
Imperial tea plucking takes place in China in May. It is a very exceptional occurrence and only takes place in those rare villages that are said to produce the most famous teas. As for the plucking of the bud alone, this is sold under the name Silver Tips or Yin Zhen; it is extremely subtle and needs to be appreciated by connoisseurs. From left to right: fine plucking, imperial plucking and the bud alone.