From plant to cup

Basket made for harvesting tea

6 August 2010
Basket made for harvesting tea

Plucking tea, practically leaf by leaf, is a major undertaking. In some countries, pickers carry baskets on their backs to hold the leaves. These baskets have an open weave to allow the air to circulate inside and prevent the leaves from fermenting, which would spoil the pickers’ hard work.

There are several clues to the fact that I took this photo in Nepal: the man’s attire, particularly his hat, which is the kind worn by many Nepalese; the house with its ochre finish halfway up the mud walls, and the white sections picked out by the darker lines; lastly, for those who’ve spent time on the tea plantations, the shape of the basket itself, which becomes square as it widens at the top, and exists only in this region.

This scene took place near Phidim, in the far north of Ilam Valley, in the easternmost part of Nepal (Kanchenjunga Tea Estate is nearby; the Nepal Green Tea Factory and the Himalayan Shangri-La Tea Factory are a little further away).

Nepal remains a largely rural country. Here, two hours’ walk from the nearest village, people obviously need to do everything for themselves. They weave in front of their homes, without becoming distracted by the stranger taking photos of them.

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Tea leaves that are worth a detour

30 July 2010
Tea leaves that are worth a detour

In the south of Sri Lanka, tea is mostly grown by individual farmers who cultivate their own land. They sell the tea leaves just after the harvest, as they don’t have the infrastructure to process them. The farmers don’t have to go far to find buyers: their freshly plucked tea leaves are very much wanted by the local tea factories, who even go and collect the bags filled with fresh tea leaves themselves because of competition.

I spent hours going round the farms in one of these 4x4s fitted out with trays and it’s an incredible experience: we sometimes had to get the bags high in the mountains, skidding on the steep slopes, driving along vertiginous drops, crossing forests under cries of monkeys. We’d then suddenly end up on the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere, around farmers breeding cattle and living out of different cultivations.

So we’d buy the tea leaves, chat a little, maybe drink a tea together. We’d talk. We’d laugh. And it’d then be time to go and collect more tea bags from other isolated farms.

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The Sumela monastery

27 July 2010
The Sumela monastery

In case you had of Turkey an image of a very hot country, I’d like to tone it down a bit. If tea enjoys being on these mountains lining the Black Sea, it’s exactly because here when you climb up a little, it’s much cooler and there are plenty of clouds and rain. “It rains all the time in Rize and if it doesn’t rain it snows !” have I often heard.

The Sumela monastery –whose picture can only be taken by patient people- is precisely located in the area where tea is grown. You can notice that nature looks close to the one found in the Alps. And these threads of fog remind me of the Himalayan foothills. So now you surely understand why tea enjoys it here !

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The Sumela monastery


The Sumela monastery

In case you had of Turkey an image of a very hot country, I’d like to tone it down a bit. If tea enjoys being on these mountains lining the Black Sea, it’s exactly because here when you climb up a little, it’s much cooler and there are plenty of clouds and rain. “It rains all the time in Rize and if it doesn’t rain it snows !” have I often heard.

The Sumela monastery –whose picture can only be taken by patient people- is precisely located in the area where tea is grown. You can notice that nature looks close to the one found in the Alps. And these threads of fog remind me of the Himalayan foothills. So now you surely understand why tea enjoys it here !

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Tea is in the bag

23 July 2010
Tea is in the bag

What a beautiful warm evening light illuminating these string bags filled with fresh tea leaves. This is happening in Dellawa (Sri Lanka). In a few minutes, these leaves will be taken to the top floor of the tea factory where they’ll undergo the first stage of processing: withering. A stage that can take up to 20 hours for this type of black tea and consists simply in remaining the leaves spread out in thin, long and well ventilated trays. Water will thereby be taken out of the fresh tea leaves.

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Under the palm trees of Nantou, Dong Ding tea

20 July 2010
Under the palm trees of Nantou, Dong Ding tea

In Taiwan, in the Nantou region for example, well-known for its Wu Long teas (Dong Ding, etc.), the tall and spindly trunks of the palm trees contrast with the rows of tea plants and give the landscape a very graphic appearance.

I have to admit that this impression is emphasized by the fact that I have been a little disrespectful to the posers in the foreground by chopping their head off…

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Cheerful plucker looking like a tea missionary

16 July 2010
Cheerful plucker looking like a tea missionary

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.

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Green tea from a wide angle

6 July 2010
Green tea from a wide angle

Of course, from a wide angle, it looks both a little easy and spectacular. Here, it extends the building, shortens the individuals and spreads tea just the way it is required. Spreading the leaves is in fact exactly what has to be done after plucking to avoid fermentation. All the leaves in the baskets are put together and spread into a thin layer just like this women wearing a white headdress has just done. And since green tea (a Bai Mao Hou, “Hairy White Monkey”, to be precise) is going to be made here, armfuls of tea leaves will soon be roasted in a big wok.

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White tea withering

2 July 2010
White tea withering

White teas are one of the Fujian district’s (China) main specialties. The most well-known ones are named Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) and Yin Zhen (Silver Needles).
The manufacturing process of white tea is quite simple, as it can be summed up in two words: withering and firing.
Traditionally, white tea is withered in the open air, just like here on these large bamboo pans which have been placed according to the course of the sun. This procedure will last from 48 to 60 hours. It is thus better to take the colour of the sun in consideration before plucking the leaves, in order for the harvest not to be ruined by the rain!

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Tea pluckers like wearing a cloth tube around their arm

25 June 2010
Tea pluckers like wearing a cloth tube around their arm

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.

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