Tea can be complicated in that you cannot rely on a name as a gauge of quality, for the simple reason that tea grows in regions which often experience significant variations in weather. This results in variations in quality. One example is that during the monsoon, it rains non-stop for weeks on end, and the tea is obviously not good. A prestigious plantation that sometimes produces remarkable teas in the best seasons is not capable of doing the same during the rainy months. So a prestigious garden can also produce bad teas. This means it’s important for a tea researcher like myself to taste every tea before buying, and never rely on a name. And it’s also important for the customer to be well informed and guided by skilled sales advisers.
I’ve finished selecting my first-flush Darjeelings – 12 premium teas in total. From Puttabong to Thurbo, Namring Upper and Highlands, they represent the best of what these mountains have produced during the season. Now I want to tell you about the steps that follow the purchase of a tea of exceptional quality. First, the tea is packaged up on the plantation itself, then transported by truck to the nearest airport. From there, it travels to Paris, and on to the Palais des Thés warehouses. A sample of the batch is then sent to the lab for analysis. Once we’ve received confirmation of its compliance with the Safetea standards that are the pride of Palais des Thés, it is distributed to our various stores. The journey from plantation to cup takes several weeks and cannot be rushed. It’s a mark of quality and safety.
Indians use the name inherited from the British to describe tea leaves (see my previous blog post). However, in the past few years, they haven’t been content with the letters “FTGFOP” or even “SFTGFOP1”. So they’ve added more words, generally nice ones. Some have a specific meaning. Others sound pretty, and the producer uses them to indicate that this exceptional tea is worth an exceptional price, for the highest bidder.
The former include the words China, Clonal and AV2, which refer to the tea plant. They stand for a variety that comes from China (Camelia sinensis sinensis), a hybrid (the word clonal is therefore inappropriate in French), and the specific name of the variety (AV2 for Ambari Vegetative no. 2), respectively.
As for the latter, the imagination is the only limit when it comes to such terms as Exclusive, Delight, Exotic, Superb, Mystic and more. There’s also Wonder, Enigma and Euphoria. I bet that in the next year or two I’ll be offered Nirvana!
The city of Kochi (India) is one of the old trading centres that developed thanks to tea. In the case of the capital of the state of Kerala, it was also thanks to spices, coffee and jute. These goods were all packed into the holds of ships that set sail for Arabia. Today, many Indian tea companies maintain a presence in this city, particularly on Willingdon Island. And if you wander along the streets that link the charming district of Fort Kochi to the area of Mattancherry, you will spot the wholesalers’ warehouses, selling whole sacks of tea and coffee, but also cardamom, ginger, pepper, nutmeg and more. It’s an aromatic experience that takes you back in time, surrounded by houses in the Portuguese and Dutch colonial style. The shadow of Vasco da Gama looms everywhere in the old town. Not far from there, tourists enjoy watching the Chinese fishermen rigging up their nets, and weighing them down with heavy stones.
For centuries, tea travelled on the backs of donkeys, horses and yaks. There were a number of tea routes. They started at the Chinese provinces that produced compressed teas (Yunnan, Sichuan, etc.) and led to Tibet. In those days, tea was traded for salt or horses.
To perpetuate this tradition today, some people hold re-enactments, and you can watch hundreds of animals file past, carrying cakes of tea.
If you enjoy tea, you will probably know that there are two main varieties of Camellia sinensis used to make tea: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, and Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Rather than getting bogged down in the Latin, here is a more practical explanation. The large-leaf teas come from the assamica strain, while the small-leaf teas – which have incomparable aromas and a hardiness that allows them to adapt to harsher climates – belong to the sinensis strain. It is self-explanatory that a producer looking for quantity over quality is likely to favour one over the other.
I would like to thank Laurence, manager of the Palais des Thés store on Rue du Commerce in Paris, for this photo she took while we were visiting a research centre in Northern India.
(photo: Laurence Jouanno)
Mao Cha – the raw tea from which Pu Erh is made – increasingly undergoes a rolling stage. Right after the leaves have been withered then heated in a wok, they are placed in a machine that shakes them from side to side, rapidly and regularly. The leaves hit the vertical sides and gradually their shape changes – they curl up gently lengthwise. Rolling takes place with most teas, it shapes the leaves. With green teas, for example, it breaks down the cells and releases the aroma compounds that oxidise or ferment.
There are four stages in making mao cha. First, a reminder that mao cha is the tea used to make pu erh, either raw or cooked. It is also worth remembering that the way mao cha is made has evolved over time. Basic withering followed by drying in the sun has become more complex as trends have changed, and as dark teas have become so popular among the Chinese. Today, this is what is involved: after harvesting the leaves, they are withered for around two hours. Then the leaves are “fixed” in a wok (see photo) at 200°C for around 30 minutes. Next, the leaves are rolled for ten minutes before being left to dry for the whole day in the sun. In theory, mao cha is used to make compressed tea, but it can be drunk as it is, and appreciated for its mineral, fruity, vegetal and animal notes.
For those who are getting ready for their holiday, here is some essential advice on your teapot. If you don’t use it for several days, rinse it out with clean water. Never use detergent, of course. Then place it either way up, it doesn’t matter, but without its lid. The air needs to circulate inside it while you’re away. The teapot needs to dry properly, and not remain damp inside. So just place the lid alongside the teapot, or on the top, but the wrong way around. This means you will find your teapot in excellent condition when you return, ready to brew teas at their best!
With the terrible images coming out of Japan at the moment, and with so many people in distress, I wanted to show you another side to this country, and pay homage to its beauty.
In the east of Kyoto, next door to the Chion-In temple, the Shoren-In temple hides in the shade of maple, eucalyptus and willow trees. Cross the stone garden, remove your shoes and step onto the wooden walkway. Admire the soft light filtered by the shojis, stop to look at the pond and then the garden, with its different coloured mosses. A little further on, a tea ceremony is taking place. The host takes the bowl of tea in both hands and raises it slowly up to his forehead, as a sign of respect.