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.
Although rooibos has been consumed for centuries, it has only been grown in recent times. In the mid-19th century, a German priest from Namibia founded the village of Wupperthal in South Africa. He imposed strict rules on the community and set about organising the cultivation of rooibos. Halfway between the Cape and Namibia, Wupperthal is in the middle of the desert. Rooibos, or Aspalathus lineari, is about as undemanding as a camel, and can withstand extreme heat without complaint. The plant’s roots push deep into the ground, which helps it find nourishment. Wupperthal is worth a visit. It’s a journey of several hours along a difficult track, which nonetheless offers some beautiful views for those who like their landscapes arid.
Tea plants are like you. In hot weather, they appreciate a refreshing mist. The tea plant belongs to the Camellia family. These plants like water, as long as it doesn’t sit around their roots. This means that tea plants feel at home on sloping ground, preferably in mountainous regions with a warm, humid climate. On flat ground, they require drainage.
Africa produces enormous quantities of tea – did you know that Kenya is the world’s biggest exporter? It’s mainly low grade, destined for the production of tea bags. But if you look carefully, you can find some incredible teas in countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Malawi. Discovering rare teas in Africa, Asia and elsewhere is what my job is all about. It’s a job that is constantly changing from one season to the next, one year to the next. No two harvests are the same. You must taste again and again, season after season, to find the best teas of the moment.
On the island of Kyushu in Japan, it isn’t unusual to find a volcano in your field of vision. As someone who enjoys photography, this makes me very happy. The outline of these lava giants emphasises the controlled horizontality of the tea plants. They disrupt a rather too orderly landscape. They also remind us that the duration of harvests, the duration of seasons, the duration of human life, quite simply, is infinitesimal. Here is Mount Kaimon, which has a silhouette similar to that of Mont Fuji.
Right down to the extreme south of Japan you can find these tea fields. They are recognisable for being spiked with fans, which are installed to prevent cold air from lingering around the tea plants. Here, I’m close to Kagoshima Bay, visible in the background, an important tea-producing region in the archipelago.
When you think of Southern India, you think of colourful temples, ancient spice trading posts, beaches lined with palm trees, boats gliding along complex networks of canals and backwaters, and luxuriant gardens. Southern India is less well-known for its mountains. Yet what are called the Ghats, literally “steps”, peak at more than 2,000 metres above sea level. This altitude and climate is well suited to tea plants.
Farming methods change over time. Tea bushes sometimes used to be planted following the slope of the ground, resulting in vertical lines like those visible on the left of this photo. Today, young bushes are planted in horizontal rows, to reduce soil erosion. In heavy rain, the water runs off more slowly and the tea bushes hold the soil in place.
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!