Every year, we tea sommeliers are subjected to a marathon: the Darjeeling spring harvests. Samples of new-season teas from the region arrive in bags of ten, twenty or thirty. You must taste them within half a day if you want to be in with a chance of getting hold of the tea. The sooner you buy, the more expensive it is, but the longer you wait, the more you run the risk of missing out on the teas you want. This process, which only takes place for Darjeeling because sales go to the highest bidder and batches don’t exceed a few dozen kilos, lasts about six weeks. By the end, the entire spring production has been sold and the tea bushes, distressed by three consecutive harvests, take a rest before resuming their growth. An observation at this point: every year, these teas are worth more and more. Yet all the gardens in Darjeeling claim to be losing money due to rising production costs, and the increases don’t appear to benefit the pickers. The Mckinsey audits, which were so maligned on the eve of the election, would be invaluable in shedding light on this mystery.
In a turbulent world, it’s good to take time out for tea. As spring approaches, bringing with it the first flowers and fresh green shoots, let’s taste those that have just arrived from the Himalayas. The earliest Camelia sinensis plants are growing again on the foothills of this famous mountain range and the tea season is just beginning in Darjeeling. After a harsh winter and a long dormancy, the tea bushes are awakening. The youngest leaves picked from the end of each stem develop floral, almond and herbaceous aromas in the cup.
I’ve just bought a batch of Rohini Early Spring Ex 4 and of Millikthong Early Spring Ex 2. Once they arrive in France and are sent to the lab for analysis, according to our Safetea™* process, they will be available. These teas will offer a moment’s pause, the scent of spring, and a brief respite from the tumult of the world.
*Palais des Thés is committed to offering its customers only certified organically grown teas or teas that have been analysed in an independent laboratory to ensure they comply with European legislation.
This year is unlike any other and I have no idea how it will play out in terms of the growing, shipping and availability of premium teas. I’ve just heard from Darjeeling that the very first batch has been harvested. Those of you who’ve been following me for a long time, including fans of first-flush Darjeelings, know that you shouldn’t rush into these things. In this region, the low-altitude plantations are the first to harvest their leaves, as they benefit sooner from milder temperatures. As they warm up, the higher gardens start picking too. The longer the period of dormancy, the slower the sap rises, leading to a greater concentration of essential oils in the leaves. This gives those gardens that harvest later the advantage of quality.
The terrible weather in India and the Himalayan regions has caused many casualties and considerable damage, and has had severe consequences in several tea regions including the Darjeeling district and the eastern valleys of Nepal. Southern India was not spared. The devastation was caused by violent rains that led to landslides and tore up roads and bridges, on top of human activities ranging from deforestation to the construction of dams and unchecked urban expansion.
We should pay more attention to our planet and think of future generations with greater compassion at all times and in everything we do.
For those so inclined, I suggest taking some time today to make yourself a delicious cup of tea from Darjeeling or Nepal, to drink it while contemplating a beautiful landscape, for example, and to think of our friends.
More than ten years ago, I met someone (very) famous and something he said to me changed my life. That person was Richard Gere, a man who loves Darjeeling and the Himalayas, and is a follower of Buddhism. The day I had the pleasure of meeting him, he asked me what Palais des Thés was doing “for our brothers and sisters in the Himalayas”. I was stunned when I heard that expression, “our brothers and sisters in the Himalayas”. It changed my life. Since that day, every time I see a picker, I think of his question, which caught me off guard. I think of his way of naming the people who live in those mountains, and since then, it is no longer pickers that I see, but brothers and sisters. And that changes everything.
The terrible situation in India due to the pandemic, which I hope will spare Nepal, reminds me – not that I need it – how dear my Indian friends are to me. There are too many to name all of them, in Darjeeling, Kolkata and elsewhere. One of them is my friend Anil Darmapalan, who I first met more than 20 years ago when he was running the Thiashola plantation. He gave me such a warm welcome, along with his wife Sharmila and all the plantation staff.
After having been an auditor for a certification organisation, and therefore particularly aware of all the issues involved with converting a conventional plantation into a biodynamic one, Anil now lives near Ooty (Tamil Nadu), surrounded by flowers. I’m thinking of Sharmila and Anil, and all my Indian friends, and hoping they stay well.
Two weeks ago I promised you that a wonderful Rohini Early Spring would be arriving, and that it would be available after the obligatory food safety analyses. Sadly, we must wait a little longer. At Palais des Thés we follow our own special procedure, called SafeTea™, which guarantees that our teas meet the optimal food safety standards. We carry out random tests on our organically certified teas (AB label). For all other teas we sell, we ensure they comply with our standards by having them analysed by an independent laboratory. Our checks go beyond the legal requirements. But this does mean we have to wait a few days longer while the tests are being carried out, to ensure the safety of our teas.
In Darjeeling, tea grows at altitudes ranging from 100 to 2,100 metres. The lower-grown teas are harvested first, of course, because of the milder temperatures they enjoy. Remember, tea plants enter dormancy when daytime temperatures remain below 12°C.
I’ve just bought a batch of Rohini Early Spring. It’s a delicious tea, and it’s special too, not so much because of the location of the plantation, but because of the quality of the cultivar, B157 (Bannockburn 157). It’s also unusual in that the plot is entirely planted with this cultivar, whereas many sections on Darjeeling plantations are made up of a patchwork of different tea varieties. The planter – who is well aware that his garden isn’t among the best-known names – is hugely creative when it comes to developing rare teas. He really takes care with the processing part, adjusting every parameter (intensity of withering, rolling, oxidation, drying) until he obtains the exact liquor he wants. This is a wonderfully delicate premium tea with a powerful grassiness and intense freshness. It will be available around 22 March, following the necessary food safety tests.
The teas of Southern India offer an interesting alternative to those in the north when the latter haven’t been able to grow due to lingering low temperatures. In the Nilgiri mountains, tea is produced in the Darjeeling style, and Kotagiri Frost is the best-known of these at the moment. In the cup, it reveals an intense green freshness that announces the arrival of spring. This premium tea will be available around 15 March, following the necessary food safety tests.
Every year, Darjeeling kicks off the harvest season. 2021 should be the same, as long as Covid doesn’t force the Himalayan foothills into lockdown. The harvest should start, as usual, around the time of the Holi festival. After a dry winter (the last major rainfall was back in September), the tea plants are struggling. They need rain so that the buds, which are just waiting to grow, can turn into leaves.