When I set off to visit Sri Lankan plantations, I stop off first in Colombo to taste the teas being sold at auction in the following days. It gives me a good idea of the quality being produced by the different gardens. Each of these boxes contains a few tea leaves and is marked with the lot number.
The advantage of photographing a window is that you can layer two images: here, the tasting set being prepared, and the landscape reflected in the glass. It’s fun to combine and merge the two views. The meaning of the tasting becomes clearer: we drink the tea, which comes from nature, surrounded by the land from which it originated.
In Kolkata, where the heat is stupefying for a good part of the year, tea is drunk boiling hot. It is consumed in the street, by a stall, where it is often served in an unfired clay cup which is then thrown to the ground. The clay breaks on the pavement, and when the rain comes it turns to mud.
The first step in tasting consists of looking at the leaves. You pour a small amount out onto a neutral surface, like a sheet of card, and you examine the quality of the plucking, the colour of the leaves, their size, evenness, etc. This already gives you a good idea of what you’re about to taste.
First-flush Darjeelings should be infused for between 3’30 and 4 minutes. The easiest way is to set your timer to 3’45. You have to be accurate when preparing this type of tea. If you want to retain a good balance between the aromatic bouquet, texture and flavour, you must stop the infusion in time. What you need is to give the aromas time to develop, while keeping the astringency and bitterness at a delicate level so they prolong the perception of aromas without overpowering them.
There are many teas to taste at this time of year. From now and for the next few months, I’ll be tasting dozens of teas every day, and up to 100 or 150 at times. I taste them “blind” because I don’t want to be influenced by my friendship with particular farmers. The name of the garden is hidden so that the initial selection is based solely on a sensory analysis. To express my preference, I make this gesture, shared by many planters: pushing the cup gently with the fingertips, palm facing upwards.
Bitterness is the only intelligent flavour, Olivier Roellinger told me as we tasted a selection of teas together, when I warned him that some darjeelings have a touch of bitterness.
It is a flavour that, unlike sweetness, needs winning over, taming. It can be off-putting, but when we know how to appreciate bitterness, it offers such richness, such delight!
And Olivier Roellinger talked to me about the famous Italian gastronomy, a fine example of a bitter cuisine.
Three plantations in Nepal are currently producing teas that in my view are worthy of the “grand cru” appellation. But in the past year, it has to be said that Guranse, Kuwapani and Jun Chiyabari are no longer alone in offering exceptional teas. Mist Valley and Sandakphu, both situated in Ilam Valley, are making teas of remarkable flavour quality. These teas will be ready to try in a few days, and are excellent value for money.
Making tea requires great precision. Scales are used to check the weight of the leaves, then there is a kettle with volume markings , sometimes a thermometer, and a timer. When I’m on a tea plantation, I like to photograph the different measuring instruments I see, like here, in Nepal.
At the end of February I was invited to lead a tasting session for some actors, most of whom had been nominated for a César award. Throughout the day, they arrived at a suite in a Paris hotel. Among them was also Kevin Rolland, Olympic Gold medallist at Sotchi (see photo), as well as television presenters and journalists. I enjoyed introducing them to some Grand Cru teas such as Dong Ding, Tawaramine, Dan Cong and Jukro. And I surprised them with Pu Erh. Many of them really appreciated this astonishing tea. They stuck their nose into the infused leaves, which reminded some of a walk through the forest, others of a stay on a farm. An olfactory journey.