Before I started working in tea, more than 36 years ago, I wanted to be a journalist. Since then, I’ve combined this original dream with my work in my own way, through my search for rare teas. I try my hand at reportage with this blog and with my podcast, Un thé, un voyage, which is another way of taking you on a journey.
When I meet villagers living in such poverty, like here, the reporter in me takes over and wonders: does the tea they harvest help them to live, and would they be worse off without it? Or does the tea – poor quality, worth little or nothing – help keep them in this situation?
In Darjeeling, a region I’m particularly fond of and have visited many times, there are large estates built by the British in the mid to late 19th century, as well as a number of small, local producers who own a few acres or collect the leaves harvested by neighbouring farmers. Some work on abandoned plantations. In these cases, the whole family harvests and then processes the leaves using artisanal methods, sometimes with great success. These initiatives include the Yanki Tea Farm and the Niroula Tea Farm.
One of the trickiest stages in making black tea is achieving the right level of oxidation. The leaves are left to wither for a good ten hours or so, then tossed to bruise them and break down their structure. Then it’s time for the oxidation process, which requires humid conditions. During this stage, the leaves change colour from green to brown. Their aromas also change radically, developing notes of wood, stewed fruit and spices, among many others. When should oxidation be stopped? In Darjeeling, producers use the “second nose” principle. At the beginning of the oxidation process, the tea leaves give off an intense aroma that gradually fades after a few minutes, only to return in full force a while later. This return of aroma is known as the second nose. It signals that it’s time to stop oxidation as the perfect level has been achieved. All that remains is for the leaves to be dried, sorted and packaged.
Today, on the eve of the biggest religious festival in the Indian state of West Bengal, workers at this plantation in the Dooars are on strike. They are demanding an increase in their annual bonus, which they use to buy gifts for their family and friends. The bonus is a significant part of their annual salary. Meanwhile, the tea bushes proudly support the bags and umbrellas. A few hours later, having achieved what they wanted, everyone returns to their belongings and the picking resumes.
Yesterday, I had a long chat with Jeewan Prakash Gurung, one of Darjeeling’s oldest planters. He has been in the tea business for a record 48 years! He welcomed me to his plantation in Seeyok and together we tasted teas and talked until it grew dark. I was impressed and moved by his words: “Tea is not a product, it’s a culture!” His pride shone through when he talked about himself and his fellow tea growers: “I’m proud of Darjeeling teas, they’ve made us what we are today.” On the winding road back to Mirik, as I looked out of the wide open window of the Jeep at the mountains in the misty night sky, I thought about his words and realised something important. For some people, it is enough to make tea and to shape the tea leaves, while for others it is the tea itself that has shaped them and made them who they are. This reminded me of Nicolas Bouvier’s quote: “You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you.
Following my last post, I received some comments that I thought would be interesting to discuss. Firstly, I’d like to say that I have a deep affection for India and have visited the Darjeeling region dozens of times, which shows how much it means to me. And Palais des Thés has taken many initiatives over more than 30 years to promote the wonderful teas from this part of the world.
I’d like to stress that this pesticide problem, which should never happen with tea, especially bearing the AB organic label, doesn’t just concern India. The same thing could be happening in other countries. I have the following comments to share with you from producer friends:
– The pesticide in question is not easy to find, and its use in tea has become extremely rare. On the other hand, DDT has been sprayed by the authorities in very isolated cases to control malaria in particularly infested areas. These sprays, which would be better if substitutes were used, can end up on surrounding crops.
– The creation of planted barriers between roads and fields, and around homes, has been the subject of much discussion with regional health authorities. This is an easy solution to implement in cases where it’s essential to combat the presence of mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite.
– Sometimes, the person in charge of certification is too close to the plot owner, which can undermine the professionalism of the work and result in inadequate inspection.
I think it’s important to point out something that few people are aware of: AB-type organic certification is essentially based on the examination of various documents, and the organisations in charge of these certifications don’t carry out regular laboratory analyses. Our health and that of our customers is paramount, which is why I’m approaching this subject in the simplest and most transparent way possible.
A la suite de mon dernier billet, j’ai reçu des commentaires qui me semblent intéressants à rapporter. Au préalable, je tiens à préciser que l’Inde est un pays pour lequel j’éprouve un profond attachement, et la région de Darjeeling, je l’ai visitée plusieurs dizaines de fois, c’est vous dire si elle m’est chère. Enfin, en plus de 30 ans, Palais des Thés a multiplié les initiatives pour faire connaître les merveilleux thés en provenance de cette région du monde.
Je fais la synthèse des remarques reçues et je tiens à souligner que ce problème de pesticide qui ne devrait jamais se retrouver a fortiori dans un thé labellisé « AB » ne concerne pas que l’Inde. Dans d’autres pays, la même chose pourrait se produire. Les remarques en provenance d’amis producteurs et que je partage avec vous sont les suivantes :
– Le pesticide incriminé ne se trouve pas facilement, son usage est devenu rarissime dans le thé. En revanche, des pulvérisations de DDT par les autorités existent et ce afin de lutter contre le paludisme dans de rares zones particulièrement infestées ; ces pulvérisations qui gagneraient à être réalisées à l’aide de produits de substitution peuvent se retrouver sur les productions agricoles alentour ;
– La création de barrières végétales entre les routes et les champs, ainsi qu’autour des habitations a été au cœur de nombreuses discussions avec les autorités sanitaires régionales ; c’est une solution facile à mettre en œuvre dans les cas où la lutte contre la présence du moustique porteur du parasite à l’origine de la malaria s’avère indispensable ;
– Parfois, une proximité excessive entre la personne en charge de la certification et le propriétaire de la parcelle nuit au sérieux de ladite mission et aboutit à un contrôle de pure forme ;
Un élément me semble important à souligner, que peu de consommateurs connaissent : les certifications de type « AB » reposent essentiellement sur l’examen de pièces diverses, et les organismes en charge de ces certifications ne procèdent pas systématiquement à des analyses en laboratoire. Notre santé comme celle de nos clients est primordiale, voilà pourquoi j’aborde ce sujet ici de la façon la plus simple, la plus transparente possible.
There’s an intruder hiding in this photo. Can you spot it? Look carefully!
It’s called DDT, which stands for dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. It’s invisible to the naked eye. Yet it’s right here in northern India on a plantation that’s certified organic. How is this possible?
Currently, the certification body that inspects plantations for the “Agriculture Biologique” or “AB” label uses a variety of methods to ensure that the tea production process meets organic standards. The inspection involves the analysis of a wide range of documents, but not necessarily the tea itself. And that’s how a tea that shouldn’t be on sale can slip through the net. In this case, because Palais des Thés is somewhat over-zealous and goes well beyond its legal obligations, the tea was sent to an independent laboratory for analysis before being released for sale to the public, and it came back non-compliant.
In a case like this, which is fortunately rare, we immediately contact the producer with our test results and ask them to take back their tea. They can choose to send it back to India or destroy it. The health of our customers is non-negotiable.
Owners are complaining, workers are grumbling, buyers are gradually turning away because of repeated price hikes, and fake Darjeelings are flooding the market. If you love Darjeeling and its people, you can’t just stand by and watch.So what can be done? What bright future can we imagine for this town that likes to call itself the “Queen of the Hills”, for this prestigious tea that makes the dubious claim of being the “champagne of teas”?If we want the workers to stay on the plantations, they must be happy, otherwise their children will leave. So they need to be treated better, and their pay is one of the factors to consider. Looking to the future, the plantation owners need to be prepared to invest. This is happening less and less at the moment because the type of owner has changed, and many are looking for a quick return on investment rather than taking a long-term view. Lastly, we can’t accept that Darjeeling tea is being blended with other teas to reduce its cost price, or that the buyer is always the variable in the equation who has to adapt.
One solution could be fewer but better trained and better paid workers, and more mechanisation, providing it doesn’t affect quality, especially in the peak season. Another possible solution would be for the plantations to buy the leaves from the farmers, who would be given back the land. The farmers would be responsible for all harvesting activities and would negotiate the price of their freshly picked tea leaves with one of the factories. The plantations would concentrate on processing and marketing the leaves. If you’re as devoted to the Land of Thunder (dorje ling) as I am, if you dream of a bright future, these are possible solutions. Surely there are others.
Every year, the situation in Darjeeling gets worse. I don’t mean the political situation, which has been precarious for decades, but the tea market. Every year, the first harvests get a little more expensive, but the tea doesn’t get any better. Plantation workers rightly complain about low wages. Paradoxically, the owners claim that they are unprofitable or even losing money because of soaring costs. We are seeing gardens close. For the record, the plantation “owners” rent the land from the state. And the planter, who runs the plantation, is just an ordinary employee. Sometimes they leave an estate when they haven’t been paid for months. To top it all off, far more Darjeeling tea is sold around the world than is produced, due to shady deals of all kinds, not least in the region itself.
Indian producers are quick to accuse the Nepalese of all sorts of evil, such as copying Darjeeling teas, but they are mistaken. For a start, Indians themselves import teas from Nepal and market them as Darjeelings. And the Nepalese have been producing delicious teas for the last decade or two, often of a similar standard to Darjeeling, if not better, and at half the price. It’s not counterfeiting, it’s competition. What’s wrong with that? Nepal has a lower standard of living and independent farmers who work long hours, which may partly explain things. Either way, Darjeeling will have to reinvent itself. (To be continued…)