Tea bushes need light, of course, but they don’t like to be in direct sunlight all day long. They prefer some shade from time to time, especially at lower altitudes where temperatures can climb quickly. So growers plant a light canopy to keep their tea bushes happy and give them some respite. This cover is usually made up of plants from the legume family, whose leaves enrich the soil with nitrogen as they decompose. It’s a kind of green manure, and the tea bushes really appreciate it.
The Japanese are remarkably ingenious when it comes to harvesting tea. In the rest of the world, the leaves are hand-picked by legions of workers, but in Japan, labour is really expensive and so the growers have to do it themselves. This means using machines, each as well designed as the next. The quality of production is not affected by this mechanisation, as the Japanese are generally meticulous and take great care to do everything properly. Once the leaves have been gathered at the processing site, a sophisticated tool with an electronic eye is used to check that their shape, size, structure and colour are of the required quality.
There are teas grown in the light and there are teas grown in the shade. Shade-grown teas are made from leaves picked from shoots that have been deprived of light for three weeks before harvest, allowing them to develop the amino acids and umami flavour so prized by the Japanese. Japan is the traditional home of shade-grown teas, the most famous of which is Gyokuro. Its intensity and incomparable sweetness literally coat the palate, provided it is brewed correctly, at a very low temperature (50°C) and for just one or two minutes. It is best sipped from a tiny cup, like nectar.
Matcha is another shade-grown tea that has become well known in France, particularly for its use in pastries. It is made from finely ground shade-grown tea.
There’s more to life than tea. There’s also barley and buckwheat. The seeds are roasted and then infused. It’s delicious hot or cold and has always been popular in Japan. In France, these crops are grown in Brittany, which is good because we don’t have to get it from the other side of the world. In the autumn, I’ll be introducing you to Yoann, a self-described “Breton alternative roaster”. By then, the ripe ears of barley will have been cut and the beautiful buckwheat flowers will have had time to go to seed. I hope you all have a wonderful summer.
In Japan, a very orderly country, the tea bushes are tended in the neatest rows. They form a kind of Zen garden, and in Kyoto and many other parts of the archipelago, whenever you see them you just want to sit down and take it all in. The aesthetic is captivating.
One of the things you notice when you visit tea farms in Japan, going from factory to factory, is the age of the farmers. Often these couples represent the fourth, fifth, even sixth generation of tea producers in their family, but when you ask them about the next generation, there’s often no one left to take over. They have few or no children, and the latter are rarely inclined to carry on the family tradition. It’s a huge challenge for tea production in Japan. Of course, the land won’t disappear and the tea bushes probably won’t either: the fields will be taken over by a big tea company. But this mosaic of small producers, who farm an average of around 12 acres, contributes to the rich diversity of tea, as they all work with their preferred cultivars and the plants that are best suited to their terroir. I think it’s important to buy from them for as long as possible, to give the next generation every chance.
Following my last post, I received some comments that I thought would be interesting to discuss. Firstly, I’d like to say that I have a deep affection for India and have visited the Darjeeling region dozens of times, which shows how much it means to me. And Palais des Thés has taken many initiatives over more than 30 years to promote the wonderful teas from this part of the world.
I’d like to stress that this pesticide problem, which should never happen with tea, especially bearing the AB organic label, doesn’t just concern India. The same thing could be happening in other countries. I have the following comments to share with you from producer friends:
– The pesticide in question is not easy to find, and its use in tea has become extremely rare. On the other hand, DDT has been sprayed by the authorities in very isolated cases to control malaria in particularly infested areas. These sprays, which would be better if substitutes were used, can end up on surrounding crops.
– The creation of planted barriers between roads and fields, and around homes, has been the subject of much discussion with regional health authorities. This is an easy solution to implement in cases where it’s essential to combat the presence of mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite.
– Sometimes, the person in charge of certification is too close to the plot owner, which can undermine the professionalism of the work and result in inadequate inspection.
I think it’s important to point out something that few people are aware of: AB-type organic certification is essentially based on the examination of various documents, and the organisations in charge of these certifications don’t carry out regular laboratory analyses. Our health and that of our customers is paramount, which is why I’m approaching this subject in the simplest and most transparent way possible.
A la suite de mon dernier billet, j’ai reçu des commentaires qui me semblent intéressants à rapporter. Au préalable, je tiens à préciser que l’Inde est un pays pour lequel j’éprouve un profond attachement, et la région de Darjeeling, je l’ai visitée plusieurs dizaines de fois, c’est vous dire si elle m’est chère. Enfin, en plus de 30 ans, Palais des Thés a multiplié les initiatives pour faire connaître les merveilleux thés en provenance de cette région du monde.
Je fais la synthèse des remarques reçues et je tiens à souligner que ce problème de pesticide qui ne devrait jamais se retrouver a fortiori dans un thé labellisé « AB » ne concerne pas que l’Inde. Dans d’autres pays, la même chose pourrait se produire. Les remarques en provenance d’amis producteurs et que je partage avec vous sont les suivantes :
– Le pesticide incriminé ne se trouve pas facilement, son usage est devenu rarissime dans le thé. En revanche, des pulvérisations de DDT par les autorités existent et ce afin de lutter contre le paludisme dans de rares zones particulièrement infestées ; ces pulvérisations qui gagneraient à être réalisées à l’aide de produits de substitution peuvent se retrouver sur les productions agricoles alentour ;
– La création de barrières végétales entre les routes et les champs, ainsi qu’autour des habitations a été au cœur de nombreuses discussions avec les autorités sanitaires régionales ; c’est une solution facile à mettre en œuvre dans les cas où la lutte contre la présence du moustique porteur du parasite à l’origine de la malaria s’avère indispensable ;
– Parfois, une proximité excessive entre la personne en charge de la certification et le propriétaire de la parcelle nuit au sérieux de ladite mission et aboutit à un contrôle de pure forme ;
Un élément me semble important à souligner, que peu de consommateurs connaissent : les certifications de type « AB » reposent essentiellement sur l’examen de pièces diverses, et les organismes en charge de ces certifications ne procèdent pas systématiquement à des analyses en laboratoire. Notre santé comme celle de nos clients est primordiale, voilà pourquoi j’aborde ce sujet ici de la façon la plus simple, la plus transparente possible.
There’s an intruder hiding in this photo. Can you spot it? Look carefully!
It’s called DDT, which stands for dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. It’s invisible to the naked eye. Yet it’s right here in northern India on a plantation that’s certified organic. How is this possible?
Currently, the certification body that inspects plantations for the “Agriculture Biologique” or “AB” label uses a variety of methods to ensure that the tea production process meets organic standards. The inspection involves the analysis of a wide range of documents, but not necessarily the tea itself. And that’s how a tea that shouldn’t be on sale can slip through the net. In this case, because Palais des Thés is somewhat over-zealous and goes well beyond its legal obligations, the tea was sent to an independent laboratory for analysis before being released for sale to the public, and it came back non-compliant.
In a case like this, which is fortunately rare, we immediately contact the producer with our test results and ask them to take back their tea. They can choose to send it back to India or destroy it. The health of our customers is non-negotiable.
The most famous Japanese roasted tea, Hojicha (or Houjicha) is made from Bancha tea harvested in the autumn. After being processed using the traditional Japanese green tea method (steaming, shaping, drying), the leaves are roasted at 150°C for five minutes and then at 300°C for another five minutes. Nowadays, Hojicha is consumed more in those parts of the country where tea doesn’t grow, i.e. north of Tokyo, mainly on the island of Hokkaido. For food lovers, serve Hojicha lukewarm or at room temperature and pair its woody, animal notes with a Pont-l’Evêque, Livarot or any other soft cheese with a washed or bloomy rind.