Tea is a serious matter, it requires much hard work and science to grow it, harvest its leaves, wither them, heat them, roll them, oxidise them, dry them, sort them and more. But tea is not just about that. It is also a simple drink, an everyday act, an affordable pleasure. Here, in Kolkata, this street seller, just opposite the New Market, is enjoying his chai tea. He’s drinking it from a little throwaway earthenware cup.
It was the British who introduced and organised tea growing in India. They created large tea plantations called tea estates. Keen to retain the comforts of home, they built charming, typically British cottage-style houses.
When I visited the Thiashola Tea Estate in India, I was lucky enough to be able to stay in this tea grower’s house. It dates back to the nineteenth century. Nestled on the edge of the jungle, it overlooks the tea, the clouds and the Deccan plain. What a joy to arrive there, surrounded by flowers, to contemplate this unique landscape and enjoy its rare silence. A feeling of being at the edge of the world. Total isolation. The moment I loved best: at dawn, pulling on a sweater, going outside and sitting on the front steps, a bowl of steaming tea in my hands, admiring the glowing red sky as the sun rose.
The first Darjeeling flush is delayed for the third consecutive year. This time, the tea plantations suffer from drought: it hasn’t rained in Darjeeling since October 10th, 2009. Surprisingly, the sky is covered with clouds, the Kanchenjunga cannot even be seen. In the few irrigated plantations, the chill prevents the tea leaves from growing. Temperatures are still very low at night and I sleep with a hot-water bottle at the Planters Club!
So far, most of the tea gardens have only had one harvest (DJ1). Normally, they should have harvested enough tea leaves to make around ten lots (DJ10).
The first lot of Darjeeling harvest at North Tukvar has a floral bouquet of much greater quality than other plantations, even the best ones like Puttabong and Singbulli. I didn’t hesitate to buy this tea which is to arrive in Paris this week-end. It’s a clonal mixture of various cultivars. I don’t usually buy tea at the beginning of the harvest, but if it doesn’t rain in the next coming ten days, the amount available will be scarce.
This year, it might be is very small in comparison with previous years. It doesn’t seem to particularly worry the responsible of Puttabong and North Tukvar, Mr Somani (on the photo), who told me with his Indian-like fatalism: “If there’s a storm tea will grow very fast, only gods know…”.
These days, when everything has to be fast, modernisation has also affected the little Darjeeling train. For one of the daily services, the steam train lets out a big sigh and takes a break to make way for a diesel engine, as we can see here. So this is a bit of progress to be avoided, unless the journey itself is not your aim and all that matters is to get there quickly.
These tea pluckers at the Longview Tea Estate (India) are laughing because I’ve brought them some photos I took of them several years earlier in the tea plantations. I like this way of connecting with people. I like going back to places I’ve been before, seeking out the same faces, giving them the photos I took. And then sitting down to enjoy them together.
We can make these kinds of connections on my blog, too. Do comment if you feel like it, tell me what you’ve enjoyed, or what you don’t like. Send me a few words from time to time, make yourselves known, it will give me a sense that you are there, that you are part of the journey!
I like taking things slowly. I appreciate anything that takes its time. So you won’t be surprised to hear that my favourite train is one of the slowest in the world, perhaps the last steam train in operation in India. It is nicknamed the Toy Train and it runs between Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling, a distance of 80 km which takes it… 8 hours! It needs all its puff to climb 2,088 metres.
On the tea plantations in India, there is a system for looking after the babies and infants. The babies are placed in hanging cribs while their mothers pluck the tea leaves in the fields. There is no roof, just a canopy. The mothers take turns to look after the little ones, rocking them while they sing lullabies. As you walk around the tea plantations you often hear their gentle singing.
Sometimes you don’t even need a seed to produce a tea plant, in fact it’s very common not to. Instead, you take cuttings from a carefully chosen parent plant. You remove one tea leaf together with a few centimetres of the shoot, and plant the whole thing in compost. The roots then form and the shoot grows into a mature tea plant. The covered area where these young shoots grow is called a nursery. Photo taken in Darjeeling, India.
The tea plant doesn’t like a very dry climate or very strong sunshine. That’s why you often find tea growing in misty landscapes. In a few minutes the weather changes, the hilltops disappear, the outlines of the trees become blurred, the temperature drops and you find yourself in the middle of a cloud, like here in Thiashola, a magnificent tea plantation in southern India.
Flowers and seeds are all very well, but they’re not enough to make tea, which requires delicate care, patience, observation and constant attention. It’s a bit like love. And a bit like a blog: it needs looking after every day, smiling at, taking pleasure in giving one’s time. Indeed, here are some tea pluckers in conversation with their tea plants. They live just a few hundred metres away, and know every corner of the plot by heart. They know each tea plant, its strengths and weaknesses. They are concentrating hard and don’t allow themselves to be distracted by the photographer. Photo taken in the indian tea plantation of Puttabong in Darjeeling (India).