Here’s what a tea plant looks like when it has been left to grow, rather than being kept low so that its buds and shoots can be picked easily. From what I’ve been told in this far-flung corner of Vietnam, this camellia could be about 300 years old. I’m no expert in dating trees, but what I do know is that some very good teas are made using leaves harvested from these tea plants… (to be continued).
Tea and rice have a lot in common. Firstly their shades of green, with the occasional touch of yellow, so delicate and varied, so intense. A feast for the eyes. I could spend my life photographing paddy fields. I often walk around them, carefully, placing one foot in front of the other along the low wall that surrounds them, in order to reach tea plantations that are even higher up the mountain, like here, in northern Vietnam. Some tea gardens have no road leading to them, so you set out on the sinuous path of the paddy fields. At least here it’s not steep, because rice grows on flat ground, either in fields or on terraces. Rice, unlike tea, needs stagnant water. Tea needs plenty of water too, but the water must be free-flowing, not sitting around its roots. That’s why tea likes slopes, while rice likes flat land. Flat versus slope, valley versus mountain, stagnant water versus flowing water; tea and rice are like two brothers who are completely opposite yet inseparable. They’re always together. They have another important human characteristic: of all agricultural products, these two crops employ the greatest number of people in the world. (To be continued.)
I’m back from Vietnam, and would like to share some photos of my trip with you. I set out from Hanoi to the region bordering China, where there are old tea plants growing wild; the leaves will be picked to make dark tea (what’s known as Pu Erh in China). After a six-hour drive to Hà Giang, followed by an overnight stay, I laced up my walking shoes for a three-hour trek in the mountains, through paddy fields at first, until I reached the famous tea plants, in the middle of the clouds… (to be continued).
I can never get over the beauty of Malawi. Every week, as I prepare for my blog article, I go back over the different photos I like but haven’t yet used here. And it’s always the pictures of Malawi that capture my attention for a long time. The scenery is truly stunning. I know my photo isn’t that good, you can see the tea plants aren’t completely in focus, but the extraordinary light, all those shades of green and yellow, the beautiful blue sky fringed with white clouds, the high plateaus, that wildness extending to the horizon, those soft lines and other, more angular ones… We live in such an incredible world! If we remember to open our eyes and look, of course. And if we aren’t set on destroying it.
In Kenya, some plantations lie at almost 2,000 metres. At this altitude, insects and fungi that can attack tea plants are particularly rare, due to the low temperatures. So in these conditions, it’s easier to grow teas organically. However, to be certified “organic”, as well as not using prohibited pesticides and fungicides, the soil must be enriched naturally – with compost, for example.
Tea plants don’t like to stand in water. When tea is grown on flat land, like here in Rwanda, it’s important to dig out ditches so that the rainwater runs away and doesn’t linger around the camellia’s roots. What’s clever here is that the drainage is designed not only to allow water to run off, but also to irrigate the crops during dry spells. For the system to operate, you need to be near a reservoir, or a river, like here, so the water can be diverted into the channels. The frogs love it, judging by the racket they make, and a whole ecosystem thrives in these damp conditions, including colourful kingfishers, which I’ve startled into flight a few times.
This year, I’ve been incredibly lucky to visit some beautiful tea plantations, like the ones I went to in Kenya and Rwanda. I’ve seen a lot of tea fields in my life, yet I still discover breathtaking landscapes that resemble nowhere else. For example here, in Rwanda, tea grows not on hillsides, as is often the case, but at the bottom of the valley. The valley in question may lie at an altitude of 2,000 metres, but even so, it’s flat. And it’s still hot enough here for dense vegetation to surround the tea plants. In this “Land of a Thousand Hills” you’ll find incredible scenery, but also some remarkable and little-known teas. If you want to taste the tea that grows here, and feel connected to this beautiful place, it is called “Rwanda Silver Mist“, a powerful tea with fairly fruity, spicy, honey notes. It is a delicious discovery, a door that opens onto a very beautiful corner of our planet.
From the time the tea leaves are harvested to the moment they reach the factory for processing, they must not be allowed to start fermenting, as this could spoil the quality of the tea. So in various locations around plantations there are small shelters built to protect the leaves from rain until they are taken to the factory.
Due to a way of thinking I don’t share, Darjeeling tea producers fear competition from their Nepalese neighbours. They think the latter are copying them and can sell their teas more cheaply, because of their lower production costs.
Yes, Nepalese teas sometimes offer good value for money, but they are not copies of Darjeelings. There are some passionate planters in Nepal who know that their country still needs to prove itself to gain recognition in the world of tea, and as a result, they try to be innovative. In Darjeeling, planters are in a more comfortable position due to their reputation that is often – but not always – merited.
So, they are two different worlds: innovation on one side, tradition on the other. By looking carefully and being highly selective, you can find excellent teas on both sides of the border. And it would be a shame to deprive yourself of either kind.
In my teapot this morning, a portion of Mount-Kenya Golden-Leaves is opening up in the water. This is the first premium tea I’ve found in Kenya, and it has just arrived. I love its notes of honey, wood, wax and liquorice. They are warming, and celebrate the end of winter in their own way. They make you want to stay indoors a little longer, warm and cosy. They make you want to breathe in their aromas, cupping the bowl in both hands.