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.
Today I’m taking you to Kangra Valley, which lies between the states of Punjab and Kashmir, in India. The British established tea plantations there in the second half of the 19th century.
In 1905, a terrible earthquake devastated the estates, and our British friends abandoned production, fearing that the earth would open up again. More than a century later, the same plantations are thriving. The tea harvested there has improved significantly over the years, and there has been no major earthquake since.
There’s nothing like armchair travelling to keep us inspired as lockdown measures ease. Today, I want to take you to Kolkata, a wonderful city for tea. In the evening, Bengalis gather along the banks of the Hooghly River, a tributary of the Ganges. They perform their ablutions and dive into the sacred waters, while others wait for the ferry to take them to the other side of this majestic river that floods this sprawling city with joy.
One region is making me feel particularly anxious during this pandemic – Darjeeling. I was there at the beginning of March for the start of the harvests. I could see that the situation for workers was not good. Some plantations had not paid the pickers, and naturally the latter were demanding their wages for what they had already done before resuming their work. As the plantations in question refused to comply, justifying their decision with the fact that they were losing money and were therefore unable to pay out, the leaves were not harvested in a significant number of gardens.
It is difficult to know exactly which plantations in Darjeeling are profitable, and which are not. The issue has arisen repeatedly over the years. Many planters agree that it is not easy to make money, despite the low wages and the high prices of tea. Knowing that spring is the season when the teas attract the highest prices, the fact that the workers are all having to stay at home in India, like we are here, means there is a high risk that a number of gardens will shut down.
These tea pickers have less to fear from Coronavirus than others. They walk to work, they move about in single file, they keep a good distance between themselves, and what’s more, they work outside. Sadly, this isn’t enough in a country of more than a billion inhabitants, and now the entire Indian population must stay at home. Let’s hope that we can banish this virus quickly, and get back to savouring their country’s delicious teas.
They haven’t seen one for nearly twenty years – a rainy winter. For almost two decades, planters constantly complained about the dryness in January or February, or both. In 2017 the weather really was against them: not a single drop of rain fell between October and March. At last, in 2020, the region was treated to magnificent rainfall all winter. But water isn’t everything. For the leaves to grow, they need heat too. And this year, it’s too cold for them.
While we wait for the soil to warm up, we’re tasting last year’s teas again, to remind ourselves of them, as well as the few low-altitude batches that have been freshly produced in miniscule quantities. Meanwhile, the pickers keep themselves happy by singing.
Every year, many of you eagerly await the first spring harvests from Darjeeling. But as you perhaps know, the first Darjeelings of the year aren’t the best, and it’s a good idea to hold back.
As it happens, I’ve just selected a rather exceptional Kotagiri Frost from Tamil Nadu. Although Southern India produces vast quantities of tea, the quality is rarely up to scratch. However, if you look carefully, you can find small plantations that produce remarkable teas at certain times of year. This is the case with this Kotagiri Frost, which will be available in a couple of weeks. Enjoy savouring it while the winter mists clear from the Himalayas and give the young shoots freedom to grow.