In Peru, tea is so cheap and in such low demand that half the production is sold to florists. Tea branches stay in bloom for a long time. It is a depressing situation for the farmers, who are deprived of precious income because of a lack of expertise and demand. These would allow them to earn a decent living and develop their business. It is my role, and that of Palais des Thés, to help them produce better, even excellent teas, and to promote their work.
Until the Agrarian Reform of the 1970s, which dismantled the haciendas and expropriated the land, Peruvian tea was celebrated. In the Inca region, everyone knew the name Huyro. Today, nobody has heard of it, and for good reason: the expertise has been lost. Fortunately, a handful of farmers are working hard to improve the quality of the tea and regain its past glory.
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.
In Nepal, it is not the year 2023 but 2078, until April. Just a few days before the New Year, I was lucky enough to watch the sacred dances at Shechen monastery. Behind the scenes, the monks get ready. They each put on their costume. The boy plays the role of the jester. He and his companions will entertain the spectators and play tricks on them between dances. These atsaras remind us of our human condition. To be human: that is all I wish for us at the start of this new year.
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.
It took me a long time to decide to go to South America. For ages I equated tea with Asia. After all, it is where tea originated, and China and Japan have a history with the plant that goes back more than a thousand years. Then came Africa, an interesting discovery. There is a considerable volume of tea produced on the continent, but if you take the time to look, you can find some remarkable gardens that are well worth the effort. And so to South America. A new challenge. Colombia then Peru. What a surprise to discover such beautiful gardens run by passionate people having a go at making different types of tea: white, green, black, oolong. Then there’s the warm welcome, the joy, and producers’ delight when they realise they might soon be recognised for what they’re doing. On top of that, the farming practices here are remarkable, and tea gardens have not delayed in getting organic certification.
In the centre of the island of Java, this farmer is pulling up tea bushes which are no longer profitable. He is going to replace them by market gardening. Why can’t he make a living from tea? Because he only sells the leaves rather than a finished product. He does not process the leaves himself; he was never taught to do so. He has always picked the leaves from the bushes and sold his fresh harvest immediately.
This is a major challenge for any self-respecting tea sourcer. How can we ensure that a farmer never has to get rid of his tea plants? How can we help him acquire the skills to make a living from his work? How can we help him to produce delicious teas with high added value? We try to answer these questions as best we can, first of all by visiting the farmers, which is of course an essential step. By talking and tasting, and through demonstrations and sharing information between villagers. Last but not least, by being ready to make a generous offer as soon as the farmer produces a good tea.
It is not only in Tibet and the Himalayas that the tea route crosses the salt route. When you travel from Cuzco to the Peruvian Amazon, where tea is grown, you pass close to Maras, a village famous for its salt ponds. Thousands of years ago, these mountains were submerged under the sea. These days, salty water pours from a spring and fills the small pools.
This is Omar Syariff, who is closely involved in the production of quality tea in Central Java (Indonesia); more specifically, on the Dieng Plateau. He dedicates his time and energy to helping farmers who grow this plant. He seeks out the most hardy cultivars for them; he helps them to develop production from old tea bushes that will be harvested to benefit the local community. When I ask Omar what he is passionate about in life, he says, “Sharing knowledge. Sharing experiences.” And when I ask him what he would like me to say about him here, he replies modestly: “I’m just a simple man who knows how to make good tea.”
Tea is not just about landscapes, however beautiful they may be; it is not just about the plants or the leaves. Above all it is about the men and women who harvest, handle, analyse and select it. From Harendong to Semarang via the Bandung Research Centre, here are a few people who, in one way or another, make their living from tea or simply enjoy drinking it.