One of the trickiest stages in making black tea is achieving the right level of oxidation. The leaves are left to wither for a good ten hours or so, then tossed to bruise them and break down their structure. Then it’s time for the oxidation process, which requires humid conditions. During this stage, the leaves change colour from green to brown. Their aromas also change radically, developing notes of wood, stewed fruit and spices, among many others. When should oxidation be stopped? In Darjeeling, producers use the “second nose” principle. At the beginning of the oxidation process, the tea leaves give off an intense aroma that gradually fades after a few minutes, only to return in full force a while later. This return of aroma is known as the second nose. It signals that it’s time to stop oxidation as the perfect level has been achieved. All that remains is for the leaves to be dried, sorted and packaged.
The Japanese are remarkably ingenious when it comes to harvesting tea. In the rest of the world, the leaves are hand-picked by legions of workers, but in Japan, labour is really expensive and so the growers have to do it themselves. This means using machines, each as well designed as the next. The quality of production is not affected by this mechanisation, as the Japanese are generally meticulous and take great care to do everything properly. Once the leaves have been gathered at the processing site, a sophisticated tool with an electronic eye is used to check that their shape, size, structure and colour are of the required quality.
There are teas grown in the light and there are teas grown in the shade. Shade-grown teas are made from leaves picked from shoots that have been deprived of light for three weeks before harvest, allowing them to develop the amino acids and umami flavour so prized by the Japanese. Japan is the traditional home of shade-grown teas, the most famous of which is Gyokuro. Its intensity and incomparable sweetness literally coat the palate, provided it is brewed correctly, at a very low temperature (50°C) and for just one or two minutes. It is best sipped from a tiny cup, like nectar.
Matcha is another shade-grown tea that has become well known in France, particularly for its use in pastries. It is made from finely ground shade-grown tea.
There’s more to life than tea. There’s also barley and buckwheat. The seeds are roasted and then infused. It’s delicious hot or cold and has always been popular in Japan. In France, these crops are grown in Brittany, which is good because we don’t have to get it from the other side of the world. In the autumn, I’ll be introducing you to Yoann, a self-described “Breton alternative roaster”. By then, the ripe ears of barley will have been cut and the beautiful buckwheat flowers will have had time to go to seed. I hope you all have a wonderful summer.
In Japan, a very orderly country, the tea bushes are tended in the neatest rows. They form a kind of Zen garden, and in Kyoto and many other parts of the archipelago, whenever you see them you just want to sit down and take it all in. The aesthetic is captivating.
One of the things you notice when you visit tea farms in Japan, going from factory to factory, is the age of the farmers. Often these couples represent the fourth, fifth, even sixth generation of tea producers in their family, but when you ask them about the next generation, there’s often no one left to take over. They have few or no children, and the latter are rarely inclined to carry on the family tradition. It’s a huge challenge for tea production in Japan. Of course, the land won’t disappear and the tea bushes probably won’t either: the fields will be taken over by a big tea company. But this mosaic of small producers, who farm an average of around 12 acres, contributes to the rich diversity of tea, as they all work with their preferred cultivars and the plants that are best suited to their terroir. I think it’s important to buy from them for as long as possible, to give the next generation every chance.
The most famous Japanese roasted tea, Hojicha (or Houjicha) is made from Bancha tea harvested in the autumn. After being processed using the traditional Japanese green tea method (steaming, shaping, drying), the leaves are roasted at 150°C for five minutes and then at 300°C for another five minutes. Nowadays, Hojicha is consumed more in those parts of the country where tea doesn’t grow, i.e. north of Tokyo, mainly on the island of Hokkaido. For food lovers, serve Hojicha lukewarm or at room temperature and pair its woody, animal notes with a Pont-l’Evêque, Livarot or any other soft cheese with a washed or bloomy rind.
In Japan, the most prestigious harvest of the year takes place between late April and early May. This is when the famous Ichibancha, or first-flush teas, are made. The next plucking takes place in early June. This produces some interesting teas, but they aren’t up to the standard of the previous harvest. Here, on the outskirts of Shizuoka, I’m taking part in my own way, riding a Kawasaki that’s very different from the ones you see on our city streets. Because of the cost of labour, Japan is one of the few countries in the world that uses machines to pick its tea leaves.
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.
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.