The Golden Triangle is a fascinating region thanks to its varied geography, mountains covered in jungle, hidden valleys and, most of all, the many and varied ethnic groups who have made it their home. Each ethnic group has its own culture, language and customs. From one to another, the styles of houses change, their relationship with the land changes, the food changes. Here in Sung Do, in northern Vietnam, a woman sets out to pick tea leaves from hundred-year-old trees.
Sharing. What is better in life than to share? My job as a tea researcher is all about sharing, creating a link between the farmer who makes the tea and the enthusiasts who drink it. Passing on knowledge as it’s acquired. Sharing with one’s team, inviting them to visit the tea fields and farms, involving them in unique occasions, memorable time spent with villagers who are so kind and hospitable, so immensely generous.
Here, in Ilam valley in Nepal, I’m visiting the plantations of La Mandala, Pathivara, Tinjure, Shangri-la, Arya Tara and Panitar in the company of Carole, Fabienne, Oxana, Sofia, David, Léo and Mathias.
On tea plantations, I come across pickers, of course, as well as villagers walking home. More rarely, I also come across television crews. I’ve just spent two days with Julie and Romain, who asked to join me. Julie is a journalist and Romain, pictured here, is a television reporter. They wanted me to talk about my work, and also to carry on as if they weren’t there, so that they could observe me in the tea fields, tasting tea and talking to people I meet. With them in tow, my work is a bit different from usual, but just as interesting. As with customers who come into a shop for the first time and ask “Tell me about tea!”, I explain as much as I can to them – about life on the plantation and how to make the best teas. Now I’m looking forward to seeing their wonderful report, which will be broadcasted on 16 March at 7 p.m during the programme “50 Minutes Inside” on the French television channel TF1. I think it will only last a few minutes – the time it takes to have a cup of tea.
You can drink your tea in the kitchen, in the living room or in bed. You can enjoy it on the balcony, in the garden, at your desk, or while admiring a beautiful view. You can also taste your tea on the plantation itself. First, you cover a simple table with a red cloth, to contrast with the green. Next, you place the dry leaves on a white sheet in order to examine them while the liquor reaches the right temperature. Then you savour your tea surrounded by tea plants, the same ones your leaves have come from. Thanks to Vinod Kumar for this wonderful tasting on the Achoor plantation.
When you prepare a cup of tea, you may find yourself wanting to know more about it. What sort of landscape did it grow in? Who are the people that grew and processed it? I hope to answer some of those questions in my blog! For fans of teas from northern Thailand (Milky Oolong, for example), here are the faces of the Mae Salong tea pluckers, hard at work harvesting the leaves.
In the world of tea, Mrs Ming is very unusual. There are very few woman in charge of a tea plantation. Not only does Mrs Ming produce some incredible Oolongs, she is also a pioneer, because she introduced tea to the area around Mae Salong. Since then, producing lightly oxidised teas in the Taiwanese style has become fashionable in this area of the Golden Triangle, on the border between Thailand and Myanmar.
I met Mrs Ming nearly ten years ago thanks to Augustin, one of my nephews who was travelling through these remote mountains on his motorbike. I’d asked him to let me know if he came across any tea plants.
Mrs Ming reserves her best teas for me – Jade Oolong, Ruby Oolong, Milky Oolong, Thai Beauty – along with that type of friendship that lasts a lifetime.
Daring and exacting, Mrs Ming never rests on her laurels. She experiments, innovates and tries out black and dark teas, with success. I have already chosen some, and soon you’ll be able to try them too.
For the tea connoisseur, the “Golden Triangle” is a unique region. First, it is without doubt where tea was born, and that already counts for something. And these days, on those steep, inaccessible mountain slopes, there are as many different teas as there are ethnic groups. From southern Yunnan to eastern Myanmar, via northern Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, one encounters a great variety of traditional costumes and customs. People in this region produce white, black, green, blue-green or dark tea, depending on local tastes. Some are worthy of the name “premium” tea. And there are still many farms waiting to be discovered in these endless mountains shrouded in mist and legend. It’s a real treasure trove for a tea researcher seeking out new gems!
Sri Lanka is a magnificent country, now at peace. The landscapes are stunning, with tea plants as far as the eye can see. The country’s best teas are produced in the south, near the remarkable Sinharaja forest – these are the low growns. Further north, the teas are manufactured more industrially, a legacy from the colonial days. On these high northern plateaus, producers could make better teas if they stopped using machines called rotorvanes, which maul the leaves to accelerate the oxidation process. It would also be better, in this region where the climate and scenery remind Scottish visitors of their own country, to come across more people who own their land and make their own tea, rather than employees – often women – working in less than ideal conditions. A fair system works very well for the low growns (for example at New Vithanakande, the most famous garden in that region).
During the visit to France by Navin Dissanayake, Sri Lanka’s minister for the tea industry, accompanied by Buddhi K. Athauda, the Sri Lankan ambassador to France, we enjoyed an informal tasting and friendly discussion at their request to help them understand how to make what used to be known as Ceylon teas – Sri Lankan teas – better known in France.
To create the ideal tasting conditions, you need quality tea, you have to pay attention to the quality and the temperature of the water, the brewing time and, of course, the recipient. Avoid large teapots, because they are detrimental to the quality of infusion. To get the very best out of your tea, including and above all the rarest teas of all, the material and the size of the recipient are essential. Here is an inspirational tasting session for the famous designer, Patrick Norguet. His goal is to understand my trade, to understand the imperatives and the expectations, so that, one day, he can create the ideal object for tasting tea. I am looking forward to it.
Part of my job is to introduce the incredible variety of flavours among teas to current and future chefs. This is the flipside of my work out in the fields with the farmers. On the one hand I select premium teas; on the other, I help chefs understand how to use them. There are teas of different colours, different origins and also of different varieties. These differences create the range and variety in the gastronomic qualities of tea. You have to taste them to understand, which is what I’m doing here with Bryan Esposito, pastry chef at the Collectionneur Hotel in Paris and former pastry chef at the Westminster Hotel. Introducing someone to the great range in the flavours of teas also means explaining the best way to obtain the liquor for the intended use. The amount of tea used, and the time and method of infusion, will differ depending on whether you want a liquor to be consumed as it is or used in a recipe. It is interesting to experiment with different aspects of the infusion method, including cold infusion, which opens the way to many uses in the kitchen. It goes without saying that I’m looking forward to tasting Bryan’s new creations!