In the Argelès-Gazost region of the Pyrenees mountains in south-west France, Lucas is something of a missionary. With a degree in agricultural engineering in his pocket, he returned to his family’s land to start growing tea. After spending time with producers in Laos, Indonesia, China and Nepal, this pioneer now oversees a new estate of several thousand plants. He watches over them all attentively, observing how the different cultivars grow, and is already producing delicious teas which he brews in a Chinese gaiwan, allowing the leaves to reveal their full potential. Humble yet strong-willed and confident, Lucas wants to create a model of sustainable European tea cultivation that will set an example in agroecology. Here, he explains this to Sidonie, who is with me to record our podcast: Un Thé, Un Voyage.
What’s the best model for Darjeeling?
Owners are complaining, workers are grumbling, buyers are gradually turning away because of repeated price hikes, and fake Darjeelings are flooding the market. If you love Darjeeling and its people, you can’t just stand by and watch.So what can be done? What bright future can we imagine for this town that likes to call itself the “Queen of the Hills”, for this prestigious tea that makes the dubious claim of being the “champagne of teas”?If we want the workers to stay on the plantations, they must be happy, otherwise their children will leave. So they need to be treated better, and their pay is one of the factors to consider. Looking to the future, the plantation owners need to be prepared to invest. This is happening less and less at the moment because the type of owner has changed, and many are looking for a quick return on investment rather than taking a long-term view. Lastly, we can’t accept that Darjeeling tea is being blended with other teas to reduce its cost price, or that the buyer is always the variable in the equation who has to adapt.
One solution could be fewer but better trained and better paid workers, and more mechanisation, providing it doesn’t affect quality, especially in the peak season. Another possible solution would be for the plantations to buy the leaves from the farmers, who would be given back the land. The farmers would be responsible for all harvesting activities and would negotiate the price of their freshly picked tea leaves with one of the factories. The plantations would concentrate on processing and marketing the leaves. If you’re as devoted to the Land of Thunder (dorje ling) as I am, if you dream of a bright future, these are possible solutions. Surely there are others.
Darjeeling needs to reinvent itself
Every year, the situation in Darjeeling gets worse. I don’t mean the political situation, which has been precarious for decades, but the tea market. Every year, the first harvests get a little more expensive, but the tea doesn’t get any better. Plantation workers rightly complain about low wages. Paradoxically, the owners claim that they are unprofitable or even losing money because of soaring costs. We are seeing gardens close. For the record, the plantation “owners” rent the land from the state. And the planter, who runs the plantation, is just an ordinary employee. Sometimes they leave an estate when they haven’t been paid for months. To top it all off, far more Darjeeling tea is sold around the world than is produced, due to shady deals of all kinds, not least in the region itself.
Indian producers are quick to accuse the Nepalese of all sorts of evil, such as copying Darjeeling teas, but they are mistaken. For a start, Indians themselves import teas from Nepal and market them as Darjeelings. And the Nepalese have been producing delicious teas for the last decade or two, often of a similar standard to Darjeeling, if not better, and at half the price. It’s not counterfeiting, it’s competition. What’s wrong with that? Nepal has a lower standard of living and independent farmers who work long hours, which may partly explain things. Either way, Darjeeling will have to reinvent itself. (To be continued…)
Yanki, une production confidentielle
Darjeeling ne se limite pas à ces grands domaines créés par les Anglais à une époque où le soleil ne se couchait jamais sur les territoires de Sa Majesté. De nos jours, au-delà des 83 plantations officielles et dûment enregistrées, il existe diverses initiatives locales, de petites manufactures plus confidentielles qui produisent parfois de très jolis thés. Yanki, par exemple, fait partie de celles-ci, et du côté du village de Mirik, Allan et sa famille travaillent la feuille de thé avec succès. Tandis que la plupart des planteurs de Darjeeling arrivent de diverses régions de l’Inde, eux sont originaires de ces montagnes et parlent la même langue que leurs habitants, le népali. Allan et les siens achètent les feuilles fraîches des villageois alentour et à partir de ces feuilles ils mettent au point des crus fameux.
Making sure that drinking our tea is always a pleasure
I am here in India for the start of the spring harvest. It takes a certain number of days from when we first taste a delicate new-season tea, then buy it and have it flown to France, to when you can buy it in your favourite shop, and this process can’t go any faster. Once the tea arrives in our warehouses, unless it is already certified organic by an accredited organisation, we then send a sample of the tea to an independent laboratory to test it for residues of over two hundred pesticides. For certified organic teas we carry out spot checks. Palais des Thés is the only company in France to apply such strict criteria, assuring its community of tea lovers that its batches meet the highest health and safety standards to ensure their wellbeing when enjoying its teas.
Photo : Alexandre Denni.
Carlota and her beloved jungle
In Colombia, tea grows in the Andes; more specifically, in the region of Cali, the capital of salsa. But there is more to this area of the Cauca Valley, south-east of the capital Bogotá, than dancing. Once known for its sugar cane, the district’s most famous crops now include coffee and cocoa. And surely tea too, one day, which creates beautiful landscapes here. Carlota, who oversees the region’s only plantation, has a principle: the plots cover a maximum of five hectares and are surrounded by the jungle, in order to protect the biodiversity that is so important to her. Carlota’s whole life revolves around her love of nature and her love of the jungle where she has chosen to live. She is devoted to her tea crops because they allow a whole community to live in these mountains and help preserve this unique, fragile and incredibly rich environment. It is a truly special place.
Colombia has a bright future
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.
Dodik teaches farmers the art of tea production
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.
A virtuous circle
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.
Rolled into balls
If you take a Camelia sinensis leaf and pour hot water over it, you’l get nothing from it. The leaf needs to be roughened up first in order to release its aromas and flavours when it comes into contact with water. Immediately after picking, the producer will process the leaves, which removes much of their moisture and eventually breaks down their structure without breaking the leaves themselves, so that the juices contained within their many cells can be extracted. This is one of the machines that’s used here in West Java (Indonesia). A cloth sack is packed with tea leaves then squeezed hard between two metal discs. This tool is widely used in Taiwan for making Oolongs, and is also used to make green teas that are rolled into balls.