Bitaco is the only tea plantation in Colombia. Not only is it working to produce more and more exciting teas, it is also certified organic and is run by people who are passionate about tea. Carlota is one of the owners. She is in charge of the Foundation. Her interests include horticulture, ornithology and anything else related to her amazing Andean estate. Every day she tends the tree ferns, dozens of species of rare orchids, water lilies, arums and anthuriums in the botanical garden that she herself created. Then there’s Claudio, who makes and tastes new teas every day and has a voracious appetite for knowledge. Colombian tea has a bright future.
Tea always tastes better when you’re lucky enough to know the people who made it and are familiar with the landscape of the fields where it grew, the soil and the bushes. I’d like to introduce you to Dodik. He lives in Pacet on the Dieng plateau, at an altitude of about 1,200 metres. After visiting each plot and examining each plant and cultivar, he buys the farmers’ freshly harvested leaves and turns them into green or black tea, depending on the quality of the shoots and what he needs. He also teaches the locals how to produce their own tea. Some of them already make wonderful, rare teas. And in a few months, Dodik will give us the magnificent “Java Honey”, a delicious black tea roasted over coconut charcoal.
Indonesia attracted a lot of attention when the aromas of its wonderful spices reached the four corners of the globe, but who knew that this beautiful country also produces tea, some of it delicious? Of course, not everything this major tea producer makes is high quality, but if you look hard enough, mainly on the island of Java, you will find sublime teas, handcrafted of course, which deliver a unique experience in the cup. Among Indonesia’s most famous teas are the white tea from the Cisujen mountains, Jin Jun Mei from Java, and Eksotik Teh Hijau.
It took me a long time to decide to go to South America. For ages I equated tea with Asia. After all, it is where tea originated, and China and Japan have a history with the plant that goes back more than a thousand years. Then came Africa, an interesting discovery. There is a considerable volume of tea produced on the continent, but if you take the time to look, you can find some remarkable gardens that are well worth the effort. And so to South America. A new challenge. Colombia then Peru. What a surprise to discover such beautiful gardens run by passionate people having a go at making different types of tea: white, green, black, oolong. Then there’s the warm welcome, the joy, and producers’ delight when they realise they might soon be recognised for what they’re doing. On top of that, the farming practices here are remarkable, and tea gardens have not delayed in getting organic certification.
In the centre of the island of Java, this farmer is pulling up tea bushes which are no longer profitable. He is going to replace them by market gardening. Why can’t he make a living from tea? Because he only sells the leaves rather than a finished product. He does not process the leaves himself; he was never taught to do so. He has always picked the leaves from the bushes and sold his fresh harvest immediately.
This is a major challenge for any self-respecting tea sourcer. How can we ensure that a farmer never has to get rid of his tea plants? How can we help him acquire the skills to make a living from his work? How can we help him to produce delicious teas with high added value? We try to answer these questions as best we can, first of all by visiting the farmers, which is of course an essential step. By talking and tasting, and through demonstrations and sharing information between villagers. Last but not least, by being ready to make a generous offer as soon as the farmer produces a good tea.
Tea can be picked by hand rather than mechanically, and it makes all the difference. It is difficult to harvest the leaves properly with shears (except in Japan where they have developed high-precision tools) and claim any quality. It is true that a hand-picked tea will cost ten to a hundred times more than an industrially produced tea, and sometimes the difference is even greater. But it is important to remember that fine teas provide an opportunity to establish a virtuous circle: the higher the income of the producers, the more these farmers can invest in the transmission of skills. They will seek to obtain quality rather than quantity; they will employ more people who will become more connected to their land and their rural way of life. A great tea thus offers everyone the opportunity to live in harmony with nature.
Rarely have I seen such spectacular plantations as those around the city of Bandung on the island of Java. The landscapes are breathtakingly beautiful with the mountains, the mist and the magnificent trees with their delicate foliage. Sunlight floods the perfectly aligned rows of tea bushes that follow the contours of the hills as far as the eye can see.
For once, the tea route crosses the (Indian) ocean. This is an opportunity to see how volcanic – and therefore acidic – the soil on the island of Java is. This is important for the tea plant, which thrives in this type of soil, as well as the humidity and heat.
In the Azores, attempts are being made to produce delicious teas from hand-picked leaves and particularly delicate pluckings. Experiments are taking place on small plots nestled in the hills on the island of Sao Miguel. At the agricultural research institute, Clara takes her precious harvests through all the stages of tea production. She achieves remarkable results using a variety of cultivars. Although the quantity of tea produced is small at the moment, I’m looking forward to helping to spread the word about the incredible teas made by Clara and the island’s future farmers.
Egypt and Morocco are major producers of spearmint, which is the variety used to make their popular mint tea, a symbol of hospitality in North Africa. The mint is harvested using traditional methods and a simple sickle. The bushes are pruned three or four times a year on irrigated land that merges with the desert. Sometimes a motorised machine – a three-wheeled shear with arms and a seat – breaks the silence.