From plant to cup

Cultivar is to tea what grape variety is to wine

23 March 2010
Cultivar is to tea what grape variety is to wine

All tea plants are members of the Camellia Sinensis species, but there are a great many cultivars, each with their own unique characteristics and qualities. Some are more resistant to the cold, for example, or to certain parasites. Others produce a more abundant crop.
Here, in Feng Qing, near Lincang (China), tea planters breed a wide variety of cultivars in order to experiment with grafting, for example, to produce new hybrid tea plants.
I visited this tea garden last year between two tastings of Pu Er, the main tea found in the region and manufactured from a cultivar called “Da Ye” (big leef).
Moreover, it’s here, near Lingcang, that the old tea and horse exchange road comes by.

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Tea growing under British influence

16 March 2010
Tea growing under British influence

It was the British who introduced and organised tea growing in India. They created large tea plantations called tea estates. Keen to retain the comforts of home, they built charming, typically British cottage-style houses.
When I visited the Thiashola Tea Estate in India, I was lucky enough to be able to stay in this tea grower’s house. It dates back to the nineteenth century. Nestled on the edge of the jungle, it overlooks the tea, the clouds and the Deccan plain. What a joy to arrive there, surrounded by flowers, to contemplate this unique landscape and enjoy its rare silence. A feeling of being at the edge of the world. Total isolation. The moment I loved best: at dawn, pulling on a sweater, going outside and sitting on the front steps, a bowl of steaming tea in my hands, admiring the glowing red sky as the sun rose.

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I have just bought the first Darjeeling flush

12 March 2010
I have just bought the first Darjeeling flush

The first Darjeeling flush is delayed for the third consecutive year. This time, the tea plantations suffer from drought: it hasn’t rained in Darjeeling since October 10th, 2009. Surprisingly, the sky is covered with clouds, the Kanchenjunga cannot even be seen. In the few irrigated plantations, the chill prevents the tea leaves from growing. Temperatures are still very low at night and I sleep with a hot-water bottle at the Planters Club!

So far, most of the tea gardens have only had one harvest (DJ1). Normally, they should have harvested enough tea leaves to make around ten lots (DJ10).
The first lot of Darjeeling harvest at North Tukvar has a floral bouquet of much greater quality than other plantations, even the best ones like Puttabong and Singbulli. I didn’t hesitate to buy this tea which is to arrive in Paris this week-end. It’s a clonal mixture of various cultivars. I don’t usually buy tea at the beginning of the harvest, but if it doesn’t rain in the next coming ten days, the amount available will be scarce.

This year, it might be is very small in comparison with previous years. It doesn’t seem to particularly worry the responsible of Puttabong and North Tukvar, Mr Somani (on the photo), who told me with his Indian-like fatalism: “If there’s a storm tea will grow very fast, only gods know…”.

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Tea bud and fine plucking

9 March 2010
Tea bud and fine plucking

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.

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Tea plants around Mount Fuji

19 February 2010
Tea plants around Mount Fuji

There are many tea plantations around this Japanese peak, but it’s not easy to find a spot where you can only see the tea garden with Mount Fuji in the background. You have to drive around the narrow back roads, keep turning round… It requires patience. And when you reach your goal, don’t expect solitude: the Japanese are keen photographers, and there is a real cult attached to their favourite volcano… There were at least a dozen Japanese around me when I took this photo.

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Rows of tea plants in Fuding

16 February 2010
Rows of tea plants in Fuding

The purpose of my blog is to allow you to take part in my travels. I spend a large part of the year visiting tea plantations. The landscapes are often magnificent, the people I meet very welcoming. I’m learning more about tea all the time.
It is these landscapes, these people, this knowledge I’d like to share with you, if you wish. This blog makes a lot of sense to me: what’s the point in doing your dream job if you don’t share it?
I love this photo taken near Fuding, in Fujian province, China. I like the gentle movement of the rows of tea plants. And this beautiful house, so peaceful, buried in the greenery. I didn’t want to leave.

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Looking after babies in tea plantations

12 February 2010
Looking after babies in tea plantations

On the tea plantations in India, there is a system for looking after the babies and infants. The babies are placed in hanging cribs while their mothers pluck the tea leaves in the fields. There is no roof, just a canopy. The mothers take turns to look after the little ones, rocking them while they sing lullabies. As you walk around the tea plantations you often hear their gentle singing.

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A nursery for young tea plants

9 February 2010
A nursery for young tea plants

Sometimes you don’t even need a seed to produce a tea plant, in fact it’s very common not to. Instead, you take cuttings from a carefully chosen parent plant. You remove one tea leaf together with a few centimetres of the shoot, and plant the whole thing in compost. The roots then form and the shoot grows into a mature tea plant. The covered area where these young shoots grow is called a nursery. Photo taken in Darjeeling, India.

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Growing the seed of a tea plant

5 February 2010
Growing the seed of a tea plant

Let’s get back to our little seed of the tea plant. Once the grower has selected the good seeds, he buries them in plastic propagating bags filled with soil and fertilizer. He places the bags in the shade and waits two years before planting the tea plants out into the ground. A year later, when they are three years old, the tea plants can start to be harvested.

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A tea plantation surrounded by mist

4 February 2010
A tea plantation surrounded by mist

The tea plant doesn’t like a very dry climate or very strong sunshine. That’s why you often find tea growing in misty landscapes. In a few minutes the weather changes, the hilltops disappear, the outlines of the trees become blurred, the temperature drops and you find yourself in the middle of a cloud, like here in Thiashola, a magnificent tea plantation in southern India.

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