This week, the Margaret’s Hope garden celebrates its 150th anniversary, and I am invited to the event. It’s an opportunity for me to remind you that tea was only introduced to India very late, in the mid-19th century. It was the British who set up the tea plantations in the country, after stealing the seeds of tea plants from China.
Margaret’s Hope makes teas that are sometimes exceptional, such as Margaret’s Hope DJ40 Moonlight, and Margaret’s Hope DJ219 Pure Av2. They are two fine teas from 2014 that I hope will be back next year.
Nowadays, the main problem facing Nepalese tea producers is a labour shortage. A significant portion of the population has left to find work in the Gulf countries or in Malaysia. This means the tea is only plucked once a fortnight on some mountains, which compromises its quality. Luckily, the plantations that produce the best teas are less affected. This problem does not only concern tea. The whole of the country’s manufacturing and farming sectors have been hit too.
Nepal produces some very fine teas, but so few people know about them! You have to travel for hours, and sometimes walk, to reach the mountains where the tea is grown. On the way I admire the scenery, with the paddy fields carved into terraces. The farmers work using the old methods, with the help of a buffalo. Life passes slowly. You listen to the birds sing. They announce the harvest time.
Last week I wrote about “rock teas”, because I had just returned from that region of China. When you ask local farmers where the name comes from, some talk about the fact that the tea must be rocked at a particular stage during the processing. But others draw an analogy between the tea’s smooth flavour, its minerality and strength, and the amazing rocks around which the camellias grow.
In China there is a very famous group of teas called “rock teas”. These semi-oxidised teas come from Wu Yi Shan, a mountain range in the north of Fujian province. The best known is Da Hong Pao. You have to taste it at least once in your life to realise what an exceptional tea this is. It has a rare strength and length in the mouth, yet remains subtle. It is fruity, toasted, woody and sweet at the same time.
Calling all smoked teas connoisseurs! It is here, in a Chinese regional park in the north of Fujian province, that all lapsang souchongs were produced for two hundred years. The origins of this tea date back to the 19th century, when a high-ranking Chinese army officer requisitioned the tea factory that stood here before this one, to house his regiment, leaving the farmer no choice but to dry his tea outside, over burning spruce roots. Which is how smoked tea came about.
Among the “Grands Crus” I’ve tasted in recent months, among the many teas from every part of Asia, I have to say that the ones that have impressed me most are the teas from Nepal. Of course, I have been sent wonderful Ichibanchas, unique first-flush Darjeelings, exceptional Oolongs from Taiwan, and richly aromatic Long Jings. Nonetheless, what is happening in Nepal is unique. In the past decade, this country has been working hard to produce teas of a very high quality. And unlike what I see in other countries, where there is a tendency to perpetuate a highly respectable tradition, here people are trying to develop new teas, work with different cultivars, experiment with wilting and rolling methods, and so on. And often, with success.
Due to the harvesting of its leaves, a tea plant does not get bigger; instead its trunk thickens. So a tea field looks more like a bonsai forest. But left unchecked, Camellia Sinensis and Camellia Assamica can grow to a height of several metres. Here is Rudra Sharma, the planter at Poobong in India, in front of one of his wild tea plants.
The Mist Valley plantation takes its name from the lingering mist that envelops the mountains in this region of Nepal. However, from time to time the wind blows away the fog, the clouds dissipate and the sky clears completely. Then this magical landscape is revealed, with the tea fields that appear to hang in the sky, undulating like flying carpets, ready to carry you off over the Himalayas.
I am writing to you from paradise,
From a plantation at the end of the world,
Right at the bottom of a valley in Nepal.
A plantation worth finding after hours of walking,
Hidden in the Himalayan mist,
A plantation that makes its tea from the crops of an association of small producers,
A plantation so isolated that the number of visitors can be counted on one hand,
An unknown plantation whose teas are nonetheless worth the detour.
A plantation named Mist Valley.