Freshly plucked tea leaves shouldn’t be kept in isolation, or they might start to ferment. As soon as they are harvested they are transported to the factory in bags made from a light, loosely woven material that allows air to circulate. The journey must be as short as possible to prevent the risk of the young shoots undergoing an undesirable change.
There are endless ways to shape tea, or compress it. Tea leaves can be shaped into needles, pearls, sticks, twists, old man’s eyebrows, birds’ tongues, melon seeds – there are many evocative descriptions in Chinese terminology.
Tea can also be compressed. This is mainly done with dark teas, but sometimes with white teas and certain black teas too. They become bricks, cakes or, as you can see here, simple balls.
If there is one type of tea that could be described as being in “confinement”, which is our term for “lockdown” or “shelter in place” here in France, it is shade-grown teas. The best known of these is Pu Erh.
These teas generally go into confinement by being shaded for one to two months, although it can be longer. And when it comes to “deconfinement”, when you lift off the covers under which the harvested leaves have been gently fermenting, you are greeted with wonderful, powerful bouquets. In the cup, these teas develop magnificent aromas of undergrowth, cellars, mushrooms, sought-after animal notes that often evoke stables, and spices. Here’s to your “deconfinement”, whenever that may be.
They haven’t seen one for nearly twenty years – a rainy winter. For almost two decades, planters constantly complained about the dryness in January or February, or both. In 2017 the weather really was against them: not a single drop of rain fell between October and March. At last, in 2020, the region was treated to magnificent rainfall all winter. But water isn’t everything. For the leaves to grow, they need heat too. And this year, it’s too cold for them.
While we wait for the soil to warm up, we’re tasting last year’s teas again, to remind ourselves of them, as well as the few low-altitude batches that have been freshly produced in miniscule quantities. Meanwhile, the pickers keep themselves happy by singing.
The harvests will begin soon in Darjeeling. Happily, the tea is still picked by hand. The low-altitude plots are harvested first, for a simple reason: the tea plants have benefited from higher temperatures, meaning the terminal bud has grown faster. We can see that this photo was taken at the bottom of the valley, due to the gentleness of the slope and the density of the covering that protects the bushes from excess sunlight.
The winter in general and especially the festive season is an ideal opportunity to explore dark teas, which have been fermented. The best known come from Yunnan and are called Pu Erh. They are sold in loose-leaf form or compressed into cakes (see photo). Dark teas undergo a slow ageing process (sheng) or an accelerated one (shu). They are prepared in a teapot or a gaiwan (gong fu method). Pu Erhs give off powerful aromatic notes of wood, undergrowth, spices, damp earth and animal aromas. And if I add that these dark teas are popular in China to help ease the effects of overeating, you’ll understand why this is a good time of year to discover them!
In China, the best jasmine teas come from the Fujian region (photo). They are made using the finest green teas in the province, harvested in April. The jasmine flowers are picked between July and early September. But if we go by volume rather than quality, the biggest producing region is Guangxi. There, they use green tea of a lower quality, while their jasmine flowers from early May to the end of September, hence the high volume, which is double or triple that of Fujian.
Smoked tea, or Lapsang Souchong, is a speciality of Fujian. It is not very popular with Chinese people, and so it is exported. European food safety regulations were tightened a few years ago, and it is now very difficult to find a smoked tea that meets those standards. This is not due to specific pesticides, but because of a molecule called anthraquinone that forms naturally during the smoking process. For several years I’ve been encouraging a number of farmers to modify their smoking technique so that their tea can be approved. This is a slow, ongoing process, but there have been some positive results.
Lotus tea is a Vietnamese tradition. To grow the flowers, you have to get wet. You get wet when it’s time to harvest the flowers. You get wet in the pond, either wading through the chest-height water or in the little leaky boats. And you get wet when it’s time to divide up Nelumbo nucifera by plunging your hand down towards the bottom and grabbing a few rhizomes, which will be planted out in another pond.
The lotus flower plays a very important role in Vietnamese culture. So it’s not surprising that the country has a tradition of flavouring tea with the flower, resulting in a particularly sought-after beverage. Production takes place in June and July and requires patience, as the tea leaves are left in contact with the flower pollen for five days in a row.