When I tell people that I sometimes taste 50 or 100 teas a day, or even more, many are surprised, and ask: how can you try that many teas and still taste something?
In fact, it’s easier to taste 20 teas than just one, especially if they come from the same terroir, because as I move from one liquor to the next, comparing how long they linger in the mouth, their flavour and their aromatic profile, it becomes quite easy to form an opinion on each one. When you taste a single tea, you have to be a complete master of tasting techniques and have a solid knowledge of the typical characteristics of that type to be able to form a proper opinion.
In general, Japanese roasted teas work very well with food such as shellfish, pan-fried salmon and smoked fish, as well as desserts with red fruit or praline. They are also ideal at the end of a meal, even for coffee-lovers who appreciate their roasted aromas.
Here, Shiraore Kuki Hojicha stands up well to a Pont-l’Evêque. On contact with the cheese, it develops woody, burnt aromas as well as notes of cooked fruit. It’s a great combination.
The tea was infused for an hour in room-temperature water. It can then be kept in the fridge for 24 hours.
I’m often asked what the letters and words mean following the name of a tea. Let’s take the example of a first-flush Darjeeling, Singbulli DJ-12-SFTGFOP1-Clonal-Superb.
- Singbulli is the name of the plantation
- DJ12/19 means it’s the 12th harvest of the year 2019 (when you see EX12/19 instead of DJ12/19, EX stands for “extra”, meaning an additional batch, processed in addition to the main batch of the day)
- The letters SFTGFOP1 refer to the appearance of the dry leaf. The grade FTGFOP stands for “Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe”. This means it’s a whole-leaf tea with plenty of tips, or buds. Over the years, the story has grown and the description has expanded. S means “Super”, and 1 means… Who knows? It’s a mystery!
Today, only Indian producers use the grade SFTGFOP1.
Next week I’ll tell you about the descriptions Clonal, Superb, Exotic and Delight!
First flush teas are often the best, as
the year’s first harvest. With winter coming to a close, cold nights keep the
plants growing slowly, which results in richer flavours. Every year, it is Darjeeling
that opens the season, before Nepal, China, or Japan.
In March, I sometimes taste nearly a
hundred teas a day, with each of the 87 tea estates in Darjeeling manufacturing
very small batches—sometimes no more than 20 or 30 kilos. In this region,
during the period when the highest quality of tea is produced, one day’s
harvest is never mixed with the next. The result is a constant parade of very
different tastings. Buyers snap up the very best batches in a matter of hours, at
premium prices, which is why it is so important to know every producer and
maintain the best possible relationship with each of them.
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.
The tea-producing regions of Southern India are mainly located in Tamil Nadu (around Ooty and Coonoor) and Kerala (Munnar and Wayanad). Although the teas from these areas are not known as the best in the country, if you seek out good teas you can find plantations producing some really interesting ones. Like here, in the Wayanad region, with the Western Ghats in the background, and Chembra Peak.
Harvesting tea using shears poses a problem in terms of quality, as the stems get cut too, instead of just the shoot and the two next leaves. For a high-quality tea, nothing surpasses picking by hand. When, during my travels, I see someone using shears, I talk to the planter to find out why this is. Often, it’s due to a lack of workers. Another common situation is that the tea is picked by hand in the best season, and then shears are used for the lesser-quality harvests, and these leaves will be used for tea bags.
The city of Kochi (India) is one of the old trading centres that developed thanks to tea. In the case of the capital of the state of Kerala, it was also thanks to spices, coffee and jute. These goods were all packed into the holds of ships that set sail for Arabia. Today, many Indian tea companies maintain a presence in this city, particularly on Willingdon Island. And if you wander along the streets that link the charming district of Fort Kochi to the area of Mattancherry, you will spot the wholesalers’ warehouses, selling whole sacks of tea and coffee, but also cardamom, ginger, pepper, nutmeg and more. It’s an aromatic experience that takes you back in time, surrounded by houses in the Portuguese and Dutch colonial style. The shadow of Vasco da Gama looms everywhere in the old town. Not far from there, tourists enjoy watching the Chinese fishermen rigging up their nets, and weighing them down with heavy stones.
Tea grows in many countries, but the plantations look very different from one region to another. With the gently undulating rows of tea plants, the light covering of trees for protection, and the dark rocks that punctuate the landscape, this view is recognisably southern India. Munnar (Kerala) and Coonoor (Tamil Nadu) produce teas of varying quality. Those that come from around the town of Ooty (Tamil Nadu) are the best.