It takes a lot of attention to detail to produce fine tea, harvested from this beautiful emerald expanse. Only the bud and the first two youngest leaves at the tip of the shoot must be picked. The subsequent stages in production also play an important role in quality. Let’s roll out the green carpet for everyone who helps to create such delicious teas.
More than ten years ago, I met someone (very) famous and something he said to me changed my life. That person was Richard Gere, a man who loves Darjeeling and the Himalayas, and is a follower of Buddhism. The day I had the pleasure of meeting him, he asked me what Palais des Thés was doing “for our brothers and sisters in the Himalayas”. I was stunned when I heard that expression, “our brothers and sisters in the Himalayas”. It changed my life. Since that day, every time I see a picker, I think of his question, which caught me off guard. I think of his way of naming the people who live in those mountains, and since then, it is no longer pickers that I see, but brothers and sisters. And that changes everything.
International Tea Day was pronounced by the United Nations to fall on 21 May each year, while other people celebrate it on 15 December. So we have a choice. As far as I’m concerned, every day is tea day. Every morning I wake up and make myself a cup of tea. I make another one in the middle of the morning, then after lunch, and again in the afternoon. It’s always the right time for a tea break as far as I’m concerned. After my evening meal, I sometimes make a small cup of dark tea before going to bed. Between each of these teapot brews, I work. That’s to say, I taste the many tea samples that come in. Dozens and dozens of teas every day, and these I prepare with a tasting set. All this makes up a full day of tea, a lifetime of tea, even.
An international tea day – why not, but for what purpose? A day of tea is good, a day of good tea is better. Good tea harvested and processed by hand. It’s beneficial to promote rare tea if we want to improve people’s lives, if we want to reinforce respectful agricultural practices over time. If we want farmers to live well, we have to buy tea from them at a higher price. It’s not a question of charity, that won’t work, it’s a matter of encouraging them to produce better quality teas. A better quality tea costs ten, twenty, sometimes a hundred times more than an industrial tea, it gives the farmers a much more substantial income, an income that allows them to live well, to stay on their land, and their children after them.
We live in a world where people have opinions about everything. These same people become outraged over nothing, because they are convinced that they are right, that they know better than anyone else. This is difficult for me to understand. It seems to me that too much certainty is not conducive to learning. The reason I know a bit about tea is because for many years I was convinced that I knew nothing. Accepting this ignorance, recognising that I knew very little and had so much to discover, allowed me to learn. As for being outraged about everything, this is also a world away from the way I live my life. The work of the tea sourcer consists of meeting people who think differently, who lead different lives and have other beliefs and customs. These differences are exactly what makes my job so rewarding. As my work mainly takes me to Asia, even when I encounter opposing views, the ultimate goal is to find harmony.
Believe in the beauty of a world that is not only guided by profits that benefit the few to the detriment of the majority. Believe that a company can bring happiness to its employees, customers and suppliers, or in our case, farmers. Believe that a company not only can be but should be a good corporate citizen and put the general interest ahead of the individual interest. Do not make profits for their own sake, but within the framework of profitable growth that benefits everyone involved. Make reasoned, useful growth that is not achieved at the expense of the planet, growth that takes into account the short, medium and long term, growth that benefits human development.
On my tea travels, I often come across rope bridges. They let you avoid hours of walking, or wading across rivers. They are solid enough that you sometimes see a horse crossing one, led by the bridle and wearing a packsaddle for carrying tea. A bridge is a transition, and as we start a new year, this rope bridge reminds me of the fragility of the world right now. I hope 2021 offers you bridges to better times.
During lockdown, it can be easy to let ourselves go a bit. We might exercise less and put on weight. Could this be a good time to turn to tea? According to traditional Chinese medicine, one of the many properties attributed to our beloved Camellia sinensis is fat-burning. This remarkable quality is particularly true of dark teas, called Pu Erhs, with their powerful notes of undergrowth and humus. If you can’t take a walk in the woods, you can at least enjoy all the associated aromas in your cup – alongside those other supposed benefits.
In normal times, the summer is a wonderful time to head out to sea and get away from it all. This year, though, I doubt you’ll have an opportunity to discover distant horizons. The magnificent Kagoshima Bay, for example. It is overlooked by one of Japan’s most famous volcanoes, Sakurajima. During active spells, it spits out magnificent plumes of white smoke three or four times a day. They stretch across the sky over this part of Japan in the far south of the country, a region familiar to tea connoisseurs. The gyokuros from these parts are celebrated, and the soil into which the tea plants plunge their deep roots is made from lava.
Right now it’s best to minimise your potential exposure to a vicious virus. Much better to be safe at home, drinking delicious teas. Admire the look of the liquor before shutting your eyes and swilling it around your mouth. Pay attention to the sensations, aromas and textures in your mouth, the flavours on your tongue and palate. Then, once you’ve swallowed, you’ll be transported by the lingering finish.
Staying at home is a wonderful opportunity to expose your senses to gastronomic experiences.
How would you like to accompany me on a trip to a tea plantation in Rwanda? We’re a three-hour drive north of Kigali. Before reaching the Sorwathe plantation, situated on the high plateau, we will travel for miles along a stunning valley covered with tea plants.
The road resembles a long scar. In the evening light, this gash of earth turns shades of blood red.