During a tour of the Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology, Dr Rakesh Kumar reminded those I’d brought with me on the trip of the essential conditions required to grow tea: acidic soil (pH 4.5 to 5.5), temperatures between 15°C and 32°C, and abundant rainfall (around 1,500 mm per year). Of course, altitude, sunlight and gradient also influence the way the plants behave.
I’ve chosen this photo to illustrate gradient. It is without doubt in the Himalayan foothills that I encounter the steepest mountainsides. With copious rainfall and well-drained soil, it’s a tea plant’s dream location!
The current tension in Darjeeling, although it seems finally to be easing, has guided my path toward new vistas this month. In the foothills of the Dhauladhar Mountains, a stone’s throw from Kashmir, a few tea plantations are well worth the detour—not only for their majestic view of the Himalayas, but also for the hard work of several local producers, which is unquestionably paying off. For decades, the region produced a relatively ordinary green tea for local consumption, but more recently, if you look hard enough, you can find a wide variety of more artisanal teas to delight the palate. All while gazing at the Dhauladhars, naturally.
The mountains covered with tea plants rise so high and the clouds sometimes fall so low that there is no room left for the sky. The clouds cover the green blanket of tea plants with mist, envelop them in a layer of cotton wool, caress them, and then disappear. I could stay for hours, in each tea field I walk through, contemplating the beauty of the landscape. And the more I climb, the greater the reward. Tea doesn’t grow above 2,000 to 2,200 metres, but at those altitudes the views are breathtaking. If the mist lets you see them.
Indian tea producers are complaining about unfair competition from Nepal, and I don’t buy their argument. They don’t complain that Japan, China and other countries produce tea, they have to deal with it. But with Nepal, India is behaving as if it could put pressure on this country, which has no access to the sea, to impose conditions, make it pay taxes, and in this way prevent it from exporting its tea. Nepal is a particularly poor country which buys most of its consumer goods from India, and is therefore dependant on India to a certain extent. India is using this to its advantage. Among the complaints levelled by Indian producers, particularly those in Darjeeling, is that Nepalese teas create unfair competition for Darjeelings. But to my mind, Nepalese teas have their own character, they are recognisable, they don’t need the prestige of Darjeeling to enjoy success. They offer excellent value for money, much better than Darjeelings, and it is most likely this which is irritating India most. Lastly, and this is a positive thing, Nepal is starting to build a good reputation for itself in tea. This is a great improvement on the dodgy dealings that have been going on for years with certain unscrupulous Darjeeling gardens, who bring in fresh tea leaves from Nepal at low prices, process them in India, and then pass them off as pure Darjeelings!
In Darjeeling and Nepal, you cannot trust the name of a garden blindly. Of course, plantations such as Turzum, Singbulli, Puttabong, Thurbo, Margaret’s Hope and Castleton have a much higher reputation than others. The same goes for Guranse and Shangri La in Nepal. But it is essential to understand that even the most prestigious gardens cannot produce high-quality teas all the time. At some point in the year they end up selling pretty nondescript ones. During the rainy season, for example, even an experienced planter cannot produce good tea, because the leaves grow too quickly and have no time to develop their essential oils. Also, each plantation has plots that are more or less well oriented, and planted with different cultivars. On Monday you might produce a sublime tea using leaves harvested from an excellent plot, and on Tuesday produce a very ordinary tea from a different part of the plantation. To sum up: yes, some gardens can make remarkable teas, but watch out, as they also produce mediocre ones. So you have to be very selective, and taste a vast amount of tea, to be able to recognise the best.
I have a regret when it comes to Japanese teas. My Japanese friends know it and share it. It is this: in Japan, few farmers produce finished tea. They are not usually set up to do this in terms of equipment. Most farmers focus on growing the best possible tea and harvesting it at the optimal time, but then they immediately sell the fresh leaves to co-operatives, who finish the production process. However, these co-operatives don’t keep the batches separate so they can process them individually. They put all the tea harvested by different farmers together. This results in a certain uniformity of flavour, whereas if each farmer took care of the production process right to the end, we would undoubtedly get a wider variety of flavours and aromas.
In Japan, harvesting is often done by machine due to the high cost of labour. So instead of picking the leaves every week, as is the practice in some parts of the world, they are harvested three times a year, in spring, summer and autumn. On the island of Kyushu, which is hotter than the islands further north, tea can be harvested four times a year – in April, June, August and October. The most prized harvest is the first one, known here and elsewhere in Japan as Ichibancha.
In the far south of Japan, the tea fields’ proximity to active volcanoes means the leaves have to be treated in a special way. Several times a year, the volcanoes spew out ash that is deposited on the surrounding land. So once the leaves have been harvested, they are rinsed before the first stage in processing: steaming. The rinsing in cold water lasts for 30 minutes and no longer, to minimise the loss of aromatic compounds.
Some tea plantations have rather ordinary origins, and the Kuwapani plantation is one of them. A few years ago there was a rundown angora rabbit farm in Kuwapani that was only just limping along. I’m talking about the farm but I’m sure the same could have been said for the poor rabbits, bred for their fur alone. The owner saw a tea plantation being established on the hill opposite, followed by another. He observed the harvesting and processing of the leaves. He developed a taste for what his neighbours, Jun Chiyabari and Guranse, produced, and he witnessed their growing success. Then, one day, he decided to change his business, radically. He opened up the hutches, installed machines in his main building to process the tea leaves (rollers, dryers and so on), planted his land with tea, recruited an experienced, talented man to oversee the work, and a few years later the Kuwapani plantation had made its name in the world of tea. I heard this story while I was staying at Kuwapani and asked the owner about an object that had been intriguing me. On the mantelpiece in the living room sits a magnificent porcelain rabbit.
I was incredibly fortunate, when I woke yesterday without knowing exactly where I was, to discover this sublime view from my bed. I’d arrived in Ella late the night before, from Ratnapura, and without the moon I couldn’t get a sense of the landscape. I was woken at 5am by the birds singing, as well as the shrill cries of the squirrels, who were celebrating daybreak in their own way. I went out onto the terrace to enjoy the sight, and I stayed there, taking it all in. This mountain is called Little Adam’s Peak.
I hadn’t been to this beautiful country for a year, and I’m happy to see that in the mountains in the centre of the island, a few factories that used to make teas industrially with a rotorvane machine, which is very rough on the leaves, are now at least trying to make teas the orthodox way, a method that is more respectful of the leaves. They are just attempts, I know, but it’s a promising sign and it’s a pleasure to see that tea planters want to try out new methods, make better teas; that they are curious, and want to improve their quality.