It’s not just us humans that are attacked by viruses; tea plants are too. For them, it is the job of research centres to find remedies for diseases. Of course, this doesn’t involve vaccines, as it does for humans. It’s about identifying the strongest plants and crossbreeding them to create new stronger, more robust plants.
Today I’m taking you to Kangra Valley, which lies between the states of Punjab and Kashmir, in India. The British established tea plantations there in the second half of the 19th century.
In 1905, a terrible earthquake devastated the estates, and our British friends abandoned production, fearing that the earth would open up again. More than a century later, the same plantations are thriving. The tea harvested there has improved significantly over the years, and there has been no major earthquake since.
Of all tea-producing countries, Nepal has suffered the most from Covid-19. There are a number of reasons for this: the small remote farms, the crumbling infrastructure (roads are cut off, the international airport is closed or swamped), the lack of access to the sea, and more.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. I’ve done my best to support my tea-producing friends during this difficult period, and delicious teas that take months to reach us are starting to become available. I’m counting on you to try them – for the sake of these small producers, the cooperatives of often very young farmers, who we must encourage and not leave to fail. When it comes to premium teas, the quality and variety of teas they produce are unique, and they are very good value for money.
Tea plants don’t like extreme heat. In the hottest regions they are grown under cover, like here, in Taiwan. This is not quite the same as shade-grown tea. It means that from time to time the delicate little shoots get a bit of respite, and the leaves are not subjected to direct sunlight throughout the day.
Today, I’m taking you to the slopes of Mount Kenya. There, at nearly 2,000 metres, a well-structured, aromatic black tea is grown. Quality varies from one plantation to the next. One of the most famous tea research centres is located here, meaning that the region’s farmers benefit from valuable advice that complies with organic practices, which are very common here.
The row of white posts bearing the names of the cultivar makes this plot resemble a memorial site. We remember the victims of this pandemic and look to the future with hope.
They haven’t seen one for nearly twenty years – a rainy winter. For almost two decades, planters constantly complained about the dryness in January or February, or both. In 2017 the weather really was against them: not a single drop of rain fell between October and March. At last, in 2020, the region was treated to magnificent rainfall all winter. But water isn’t everything. For the leaves to grow, they need heat too. And this year, it’s too cold for them.
While we wait for the soil to warm up, we’re tasting last year’s teas again, to remind ourselves of them, as well as the few low-altitude batches that have been freshly produced in miniscule quantities. Meanwhile, the pickers keep themselves happy by singing.
Every year, many of you eagerly await the first spring harvests from Darjeeling. But as you perhaps know, the first Darjeelings of the year aren’t the best, and it’s a good idea to hold back.
As it happens, I’ve just selected a rather exceptional Kotagiri Frost from Tamil Nadu. Although Southern India produces vast quantities of tea, the quality is rarely up to scratch. However, if you look carefully, you can find small plantations that produce remarkable teas at certain times of year. This is the case with this Kotagiri Frost, which will be available in a couple of weeks. Enjoy savouring it while the winter mists clear from the Himalayas and give the young shoots freedom to grow.
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.