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.
In Darjeeling, tea is cultivated until the end of November, give or take a couple of weeks, depending on the soil temperature. Once the temperature dips below 16°C, the tea plants enter a dormant state until the following spring. November is an ideal month to admire the third highest peak in the world, Kangchenjunga, which rises above the Himalayan foothills.
How much longer will tea be harvested by hand in India, where there is ongoing conflict over employment conditions? The pickers are demanding justified pay rises, but the plantations are only just profitable, while some are even loss-making. Tea is already sold at a high price without the benefit being passed on to local populations. Do we risk seeing mechanical harvesting replace manual picking due to a lack of workers? And what will be the consequences on quality? Or are we moving towards plantations being turned into cooperatives so that everyone has a stake in them and can live decently on their wages? These questions have not yet been answered.
Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, is known as the “city of joy”, but it’s also the city of tea. All the producers of Darjeeling and Assam teas have their office there. Auctions take place in the historical district of BBD Bagh, supplying the lifeblood of a whole economy. And the precious cargoes of tea are dispatched from the city’s port.
Kolkata, a sprawling city of ten, fifteen, even twenty million inhabitants – who knows? – extends outwards from the banks of the Hooghly River, a tributary of the Ganges. Its public transport system includes many boats which offer a peaceful crossing, away from the busy traffic.
Tea plants are like you. In hot weather, they appreciate a refreshing mist. The tea plant belongs to the Camellia family. These plants like water, as long as it doesn’t sit around their roots. This means that tea plants feel at home on sloping ground, preferably in mountainous regions with a warm, humid climate. On flat ground, they require drainage.
For me, tea is more than a goal, it’s a path. I can’t imagine ever knowing everything there is to know about tea. A lifetime isn’t enough. Tea is a path: what’s important to me isn’t arriving, but progressing. Progressing in my knowledge of the plant, in my knowledge of the art of processing the leaves, progressing on my journey through the tea fields to reach the villages where the communities live. Progressing slowly but surely, in a world where everyone is rushing.
I mostly travel alone. I depart alone, I return alone. This solitude encourages me to approach others. I’m more easily accepted by them, to be among them. Alone, you open up to others. We all need other people. Without a travel companion, you make more of an effort to adopt the culture of the people you meet. Alone, you’re more vulnerable, more permeable, more receptive. And that’s a good thing, because I travel to listen.
The Darjeeling season is going to be a strange one. The really amazing teas are priced out of reach (30% to 50% higher than in previous years) to compensate, the planters say, for the losses they sustained during the 105 days of strikes last year. So far I’ve bought, on the best possible terms, the following: Mission Hill DJ4 SFTGFOP1 Clonal, Puttabong DJ14 SFTGFOP1 Clonal Exotic, Puttabong DJ12 SFTGFOP1 Clonal Queen, Orange Valley DJ5 SFTGFOP1 cultivar China, Balasun DJ6 SFTGFOP1 Himalayan Mystic, and Rohini DJ15 FTGFOP1 Exotic White, all exclusive. They’re of a remarkable quality and will delight enthusiasts. For those wanting first-flush Darjeelings at lower prices, you’ll have to wait. Firstly, the only teas that are cheap are very poor quality, and secondly, even the mediocre teas are priced high, or very high. They’re absolutely not worth it. To sum up, this year requires more vigilance than usual.
For fans of Himalayan teas who aren’t focused on Darjeeling, and who are looking for good deals, why not wait for the Nepalese teas? They’ll be ready soon and often represent excellent value for money.