When I buy a freshly picked rare tea, I have just one thing in mind: to make it available to all of you who enjoy premium teas. But it’s not that straightforward. One of my conditions is that the tea must be clean. It’s common sense. When I buy a tea from a plantation or a farm with organic certification, I can depend on the certifying body and only need to carry out random checks. However, for teas without certification, as soon as they arrive in France, instead of being sent straight to the stores, they are dispatched to a specialist laboratory for analysis. This takes a week. A week longer before you can try the teas in our stores and drink them with peace of mind.
Today, I’m taking you to the slopes of Mount Kenya. There, at nearly 2,000 metres, a well-structured, aromatic black tea is grown. Quality varies from one plantation to the next. One of the most famous tea research centres is located here, meaning that the region’s farmers benefit from valuable advice that complies with organic practices, which are very common here.
The row of white posts bearing the names of the cultivar makes this plot resemble a memorial site. We remember the victims of this pandemic and look to the future with hope.
If you’re someone who thinks about the health of our planet and you want to reduce your use of packaging, you might consider what benefit there is in using a tea bag instead of loose-leaf tea next time you’re brewing a cuppa. It’s true that when we’re on a flight or staying in a hotel it’s nice to have our favourite tea to hand, and it wouldn’t be convenient to carry around a canister.
But at home or at work, it’s so easy to use a teapot or a mug with an infuser. Tea bags are practical, of course. But it’s not difficult to measure out tea leaves: a pinch between three fingers is about right for a 10cl cup. Then pour over the hot water. So simple. And it does away with one, two or even three layers of packaging.
There are artisan teas, and there are industrial teas. The same is true for many of the products we consume. If we had to pick something that symbolises the work of the artisan, we could talk about their craftsmanship, or we could talk quite simply of their hands. Artisanal work involves the hands. To produce a fine tea, to pick the best leaves or to take cuttings, hands play an essential role.
What about consuming better quality but less? It would mean that every time we bought an object or item of food, we would ask ourselves if hands played a part in making it.
I dream of a world where everything is organic, everyone is kind. A world with flowers and bees. A world in which people still have a place, a world on a human scale. But when I go shopping, I don’t always buy organic products. Why not? Because when I’m in the countryside, I visit neighbouring farms, I know the farmers. They run small operations and don’t have certification, but I know how they work, the quality of their products, the care they take in production. I can see their facilities, I can see how they treat their animals, I can talk to them about their agricultural methods. This connection is valuable, it is based on trust, and is worth much more than a logo. The same goes for tea. I trust the AB organic label we have in France, and everything it stands for, but I am very happy to buy from small Nepalese farmers, for example, who have joined forces to form a co-operative with perhaps several hundred members, who I know, and whose practices I understand. These farmers know nothing about the world of certification, and probably would not be able to afford it anyway.
When I travel across some regions of France, I’m alarmed. Where are the hedges? Where are the field margins? When I travel around the world, if I come across a tea plantation that extends as far as the eye can see without so much as a tree, a hedgerow or a field margin left to nature, I run a mile. I can be sure that I won’t find clean teas there, grown in conditions that respect nature. To produce clean teas without the use of pesticides, you need to work with nature. You need ladybirds to attack other insects, you need birds to eat the insects, you need earthworms to aerate the soil. You sometimes need cows, to mix their manure with green waste to feed the worms and enrich the soil. But all these creatures need somewhere to live. Hedges, trees, field margins, even a cowshed. In my job as a tea researcher, which involves seeking out good quality products grown using clean and sustainable farming methods that respect nature, a field containing a single crop covering hundreds of acres is a nightmare scenario.
Here, in Poobong (India), is a landscape that offers hope for biodiversity.
My work has changed a lot in the past 30 years. Before, I would select teas, and then we had to get them here as quickly as possible if they were Grands Crus – we called them “rare and ephemeral”. I would visit every farm, of course, but that’s where the work ended.
Today, our demands – and I’m talking about our own demands just as much as our customers’ – in terms of health, food safety and environmental respect, are so much higher. It’s no longer enough to find teas that are remarkable for their gastronomic qualities. They must also meet strict standards – happily, European standards are the strictest in the world. Food safety is better. Flavour and health have become inseparable, for which I’m grateful. Then it’s up to me to make sure you can taste these rare teas as soon after harvest as possible.
My job not only consists of hunting down rare teas that offer great flavour sensations and tasting pleasures. My motto is as follows: I want the teas that do us such good not to harm those who harvest and process them, or the planet. Such a requirement is not always easy to fulfil. With the sometimes-unacceptable working conditions, pesticide residues and excessive use of fertilisers that destroy river life, there is plenty to contend with. But I’m not a pessimist. Firstly, the higher the quality of tea, the better the practices (there are several reasons for this, such as altitude, which is a factor in the quality of tea due to the cooler nights that impede predators that might otherwise attack the plants). Secondly, a tea can only be exceptional if the greatest attention is paid to the harvest itself and to every stage in the processing, which means planters and farmers must ensure they have the best workers, who are well trained and enthusiastic. Lastly, I’ve gained enough experience now to know what to look for when I visit a plantation in terms of agricultural practices and the way the men and women are treated and how their expertise is honoured. I refuse to work with many producers. And I appreciate even more the pleasure of promoting the amazing work done by many farmers whose methods are exemplary and who know what it means to support their fellow humans every day.
I’d like to introduce you to Kitano Shuichi. Of all the farmers I’ve met in Japan, he’s the most passionate and inspiring about organic practices. He’s been using these methods for 30 years, introduced by his father. The latter, convinced of the health benefits of organic tea, suffered financially for ten years, due to very low yields, but he pulled through. Today, he sells his tea for a good price because demand for organic tea is higher. Kitano Shuichi and his father make their own compost, while others buy it in from outside. But most significantly, they never use anything to do with animals in their compost. So that means no cow manure, for example. They believe in biodynamic methods and use them successfully. They’re so proud of their compost they insist you taste it. But if you want to know their exact recipe, you can ask all you like but they’ll reveal nothing save their good humour, with a smile.
Tea plantations that use organic methods avoid all conventional pesticides and fungicides. They limit the spread of undesirable elements through the use of natural predators or repellents. And to enrich the soil, to make up for the nutrients that the tea plants take up, especially in intensive farming, they need to add a significant amount of organic matter. Organic compost can be bought in, or even better, produced on the plantation. One way of doing this is using vermiculture, a fairly common practice in India. Millions of earthworms are fed cattle manure mixed with chopped up banana leaves, for example. The worms produce excrement, and it is this excrement that is deposited around the base of each tea plant.