Yves Ugalde is the deputy mayor of Bayonne and a fine writer. In his amusing account of the opening of Palais des Thés’ Bayonne store, he says he approached this new product offering in the city with a certain reluctance, “if only because I was afraid of being met by some high priest of the post-Covid world spouting all the vegan, meat-free marketing claims beloved of urban eco-warriors, of a world in which the digestive tract is gradually transformed into a temple”. I’m delighted by his account because it is Palais des Thés’ mission to rid tea of its clichés and to guide each person towards easy-drinking teas or rarer vintages depending on their tastes, just like a wine merchant does. And what a pleasure it is to read that Mr Ugalde is now willing to adopt a different stance towards Camellia sinensis, especially as there are some very serious attempts being made to grow it in this beautiful Basque region. Between the Nive and Adour rivers they already celebrate ham and chocolate with festivals – isn’t it time they had one for tea?
The trip of a lifetime
Part of my job involves taking those who help to promote tea with me on my research trips. Many of my colleagues have never seen a tea plant in real life, so it is both a pleasure and a duty to ask them to accompany me on a tour of the plantations. Last week I was in Ilam Valley with Anna, Cassandra, Svetlana, Clément, Pierre and Thomas. We went from one small producer to another, meeting extraordinary people and admiring breathtaking scenery. Together, we rolled the leaves we had picked ourselves, joined by Léo, who works with me, searching for the world’s finest teas. We wished each other a Happy New Year, because in this incredible country we had just entered the year 2079. What wonderful moments these are, what incredible discoveries. To travel to such remote regions is, in a way, the trip of a lifetime, and nothing makes me happier than sharing it, and giving others a glimpse of this extraordinary profession.
Years of happiness and adventure
My colleagues gave me a wonderful surprise by helping me to celebrate my new decade, and I’d like to thank them from the bottom of my heart. Each of them wrote a note on the tea of their choice so that during my long journeys to the other side of the globe they will always be by my side.
The Palais des Thés story began 35 years ago. I’ve dedicated more than half my life to it and nothing touches me more than the smiles and joy of the people who are part of this beautiful adventure.
There is some sort of International or National Tea Day three, four or five times a year. Different organisations, some more official than others, have decided that such and such a day should be dedicated to tea – 15th December, for example. Fine. For me, every day is a tea day, starting in the morning with a lovely cuppa when I wake up. Then a bit later, a tea does me good, then later still I’ll have a cup of tea with colleagues and another with friends. I have one in the evening too – a chai, in this case – and enjoy inhaling its delicious scents. A day without tea would be pure misery!
Thinking of friends
The terrible weather in India and the Himalayan regions has caused many casualties and considerable damage, and has had severe consequences in several tea regions including the Darjeeling district and the eastern valleys of Nepal. Southern India was not spared. The devastation was caused by violent rains that led to landslides and tore up roads and bridges, on top of human activities ranging from deforestation to the construction of dams and unchecked urban expansion.
We should pay more attention to our planet and think of future generations with greater compassion at all times and in everything we do.
For those so inclined, I suggest taking some time today to make yourself a delicious cup of tea from Darjeeling or Nepal, to drink it while contemplating a beautiful landscape, for example, and to think of our friends.
One silver lining of Covid-19 is that it has brought some tranquillity to beautiful places that are often overrun by hordes of tourists. In Myanmar, Inle Lake is one of those wonderful destinations that it is important to protect. There’s no doubt that, for the planet, the pandemic has brought some peace.
I hope you all have a good summer and I look forward to seeing you back here on 10 September.
The end of our journey
I long for life to return, in all its glory, in every aspect.
I long for our senses to be restored and for us to rediscover, when we walk, the sense of smell.
I long for the taste of things to come back to us; the taste of tea, of course, the tea offered to us when we are greeted at the end of our journey.
And their children after them
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.
My Indian friends
The terrible situation in India due to the pandemic, which I hope will spare Nepal, reminds me – not that I need it – how dear my Indian friends are to me. There are too many to name all of them, in Darjeeling, Kolkata and elsewhere. One of them is my friend Anil Darmapalan, who I first met more than 20 years ago when he was running the Thiashola plantation. He gave me such a warm welcome, along with his wife Sharmila and all the plantation staff.
After having been an auditor for a certification organisation, and therefore particularly aware of all the issues involved with converting a conventional plantation into a biodynamic one, Anil now lives near Ooty (Tamil Nadu), surrounded by flowers. I’m thinking of Sharmila and Anil, and all my Indian friends, and hoping they stay well.
As we enter a new year, it’s difficult to know what lies ahead for the next 12 months. If some psychic had predicted a year ago that the world would grind to a halt and we’d all be wearing masks, we’d have laughed. Yet a lack of visibility is exactly what the tea plant likes; it is happy in the mist, and most of all it loves humidity. It is therefore unperturbed when the horizon isn’t visible. We will find it in good health next year. As for us, we may not be celebrating in the usual way, but I’d simply like to wish you good health!