Autumn has arrived! For those of you just beginning to explore tea, here are the basics you should know about the plant. Tea comes from Camellia sinensis, a variety of camellia. Several times a year, new growth is plucked from this evergreen shrub to be processed into different types of tea (green, black, white, etc.). The colour of the tea comes not from the shrub itself, but from the way the leaves are handled after harvesting. Tea plants thrive in regions with a hot and humid climate, preferring acidic soil and regular water throughout the year. Finally, altitude (tea plants grow at up to 2,500 meters) enhances the quality of tea while reducing yield.
This year, I have chosen ten Chinese new-season green teas. They include well-known names such as Bi Luo Chun, Long Jing, Huang Shan Mao Feng, Ding Gu Da Fang and Yong Xi Huo Qing, as well as some rare pluckings. There are three aims with a selection like this: the teas must be exceptional, clean, and offer value for money.
I’ve travelled enough in China over 30 years to know where to find the best teas. However, every year, more and more Chinese people are buying these rare teas, and domestic demand has gone from non-existent to high, which has, of course, pushed prices up. Also, although European standards on pesticide residues are the strictest in the world, which is a good thing, they put off a number of farmers due to the long, costly analysis process involved, first in China, then in France.
So the 2019 Chinese new-season selection features teas that are rare, clean and the best possible value for money. Happy tasting!
When it gets really hot, tea plants benefit from a few hours of shade every day. So in regions where temperature can soar, trees are planted above them.
We are like the tea plants – dreaming, as we walk around town, of leafy trees that would shade us from the sun and excessive heat.
In the region known as the Golden Triangle, you can find tea plants that are not quite like the others. Instead of being pruned at a low level to make it easier to pick the leaves, they are left to grow like trees. When harvest time comes, the pickers must climb up into the camellias, some of which are several hundred years old. The leaves from these trees are particularly sought-after to make Pu Erhs and dark teas.
On tea plantations, I come across pickers, of course, as well as villagers walking home. More rarely, I also come across television crews. I’ve just spent two days with Julie and Romain, who asked to join me. Julie is a journalist and Romain, pictured here, is a television reporter. They wanted me to talk about my work, and also to carry on as if they weren’t there, so that they could observe me in the tea fields, tasting tea and talking to people I meet. With them in tow, my work is a bit different from usual, but just as interesting. As with customers who come into a shop for the first time and ask “Tell me about tea!”, I explain as much as I can to them – about life on the plantation and how to make the best teas. Now I’m looking forward to seeing their wonderful report, which will be broadcasted on 16 March at 7 p.m during the programme “50 Minutes Inside” on the French television channel TF1. I think it will only last a few minutes – the time it takes to have a cup of tea.
You can drink your tea in the kitchen, in the living room or in bed. You can enjoy it on the balcony, in the garden, at your desk, or while admiring a beautiful view. You can also taste your tea on the plantation itself. First, you cover a simple table with a red cloth, to contrast with the green. Next, you place the dry leaves on a white sheet in order to examine them while the liquor reaches the right temperature. Then you savour your tea surrounded by tea plants, the same ones your leaves have come from. Thanks to Vinod Kumar for this wonderful tasting on the Achoor plantation.
The tea-producing regions of Southern India are mainly located in Tamil Nadu (around Ooty and Coonoor) and Kerala (Munnar and Wayanad). Although the teas from these areas are not known as the best in the country, if you seek out good teas you can find plantations producing some really interesting ones. Like here, in the Wayanad region, with the Western Ghats in the background, and Chembra Peak.
Tea grows in many countries, but the plantations look very different from one region to another. With the gently undulating rows of tea plants, the light covering of trees for protection, and the dark rocks that punctuate the landscape, this view is recognisably southern India. Munnar (Kerala) and Coonoor (Tamil Nadu) produce teas of varying quality. Those that come from around the town of Ooty (Tamil Nadu) are the best.
In Darjeeling, tea is cultivated until the end of November, give or take a couple of weeks, depending on the soil temperature. Once the temperature dips below 16°C, the tea plants enter a dormant state until the following spring. November is an ideal month to admire the third highest peak in the world, Kangchenjunga, which rises above the Himalayan foothills.
When I’m looking for premium teas, I look at what the farmers and plantations I already know are producing. I also look for new farms, sometimes in new regions, sometimes in new countries. Sourcing premium teas is like starting from scratch every time. When it comes to rare and exceptional teas, there is no guarantee that a reputable producer will be able to make a tea as amazing as the previous year’s. You have to try the teas, blind, so you’re not influenced by the prestige of a name or your goodwill towards a farmer. And sometimes you have to pack your bags and set out on an adventure. Rwanda, for example, can produce some very good teas, and is among the countries I intend to return to soon and explore different plantations.