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.
Tea plantations sometimes change hands, and this is important knowledge for tea researchers. The Singbulli garden (photo) in Darjeeling has just been sold. Who will be the next planter? What knowledge of tea will they have, and what production methods will they use? These questions show that you cannot rely on a garden’s name alone. The life of a tea estate evolves, and with it the quality of the teas it produces. Let’s hope that Singbulli continues to make the delicious teas to which we have become accustomed, such as those fine teas produced using cultivar AV2 and on the best plot: Tingling.
With so much focus on the benefits of the vaccination needle, despite its brief sting, I wanted to look at a comparable phenomenon that affects the tea plant, in which momentary “pain” is beneficial. In some parts of the world, such as Taiwan and Darjeeling, a particular insect – a type of leafhopper called Jacobiasca formosana – likes to munch on the leaves of Camellia sinensis. The plant’s chemical response to this attack results in a rare, highly sought-after aroma in the cup. You will find this bouquet in an Oriental Beauty, for example, or a Darjeeling Muscatel. In these regions, farmers actively protect the insect to make sure they visit the plants and eat their leaves.
If the Indian gods could come to our rescue in this fight against Covid-19, I would implore them to do so immediately. As an offering, I would place their weight in tea at their feet. In India, where there are many gods, religion is everywhere, even on the sides of trucks, which drivers paint with the god under whose protection they place themselves. This provides valuable insurance in a country in which road safety rules – where they exist – are not always shared.
I chose this photo today not to illustrate the appalling situation hotels are in due to Covid-19 and the lack of tourism, but for the pleasure of taking you to the streets of Kolkata. The city might be dilapidated but I love it. It was built on tea, among other things. Kolkata is a port, and tea companies still have their headquarters there today. The most important auctions in the country are held in the city, and all the teas from Assam, the northern plains and Darjeeling leave India from its quays.