Darjeeling is a place of contrasts right now. Life has resumed throughout the district. Once again, the roads, shops and hotels are open, the tea plantations too. But there is much work to be done, as the tea plants have disappeared beneath the weeds. This is not serious for the shrubs, they’re in good conditions, but all the vegetation needs clearing, and then the precious camellia sinensis must be cut back to their initial size. Sadly, there is a lack of manpower in Darjeeling. During the three months of protests in favour of regional autonomy, many men left the mountains to find work elsewhere. And now, the plantations don’t have enough people to do the clearing and cutting back. Yet this work is essential if there is to be a good harvest next spring, otherwise there won’t be enough Darjeeling tea, and fake Darjeelings, which are already in circulation, will flood the market. That would be a catastrophe for Darjeeling, and I hope with all my heart it will never come to that. We will have to pay close attention to the situation.
During a tour of the Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology, Dr Rakesh Kumar reminded those I’d brought with me on the trip of the essential conditions required to grow tea: acidic soil (pH 4.5 to 5.5), temperatures between 15°C and 32°C, and abundant rainfall (around 1,500 mm per year). Of course, altitude, sunlight and gradient also influence the way the plants behave.
I’ve chosen this photo to illustrate gradient. It is without doubt in the Himalayan foothills that I encounter the steepest mountainsides. With copious rainfall and well-drained soil, it’s a tea plant’s dream location!
Plucking tea leaves by hand is labour-intensive, but manual harvesting is a mark of quality. Some research centres, like here in northern India, are working to optimise mechanisation. The bushes are pruned in a different way, and they are working to identify which type of mechanical cutting will result in the most abundant crops. I don’t have to tell you that I fear this future mechanisation, although uniquely in the case of Japan, it has already been the practice for a long time, and doesn’t affect the quality of the tea due to the great care taken by the farmers in that country.
(Photo : Laurence Jouanno)
The current tension in Darjeeling, although it seems finally to be easing, has guided my path toward new vistas this month. In the foothills of the Dhauladhar Mountains, a stone’s throw from Kashmir, a few tea plantations are well worth the detour—not only for their majestic view of the Himalayas, but also for the hard work of several local producers, which is unquestionably paying off. For decades, the region produced a relatively ordinary green tea for local consumption, but more recently, if you look hard enough, you can find a wide variety of more artisanal teas to delight the palate. All while gazing at the Dhauladhars, naturally.
The mountains covered with tea plants rise so high and the clouds sometimes fall so low that there is no room left for the sky. The clouds cover the green blanket of tea plants with mist, envelop them in a layer of cotton wool, caress them, and then disappear. I could stay for hours, in each tea field I walk through, contemplating the beauty of the landscape. And the more I climb, the greater the reward. Tea doesn’t grow above 2,000 to 2,200 metres, but at those altitudes the views are breathtaking. If the mist lets you see them.
The situation in Darjeeling has become dangerous. All the shops have shut, the hotels have closed, the roads are blocked. Work has ground to a halt on the tea plantations. It has been like this for 70 days. We are facing a major shortage. Worse, clashes with the army have left some dead. I don’t know if a political solution will be reached between the central government, the leaders of West Bengal and the separatists. I don’t know if demands to create a new state, Gorkhaland, within the Union of India, will lead to anything. What I do know is that the plantations are under threat and that it will take several weeks to get back to a situation where they can start producing tea again. It will require a massive effort in terms of clearing the ground and pruning before the bushes can grow in the right way for harvesting. The summer crop is already spoilt. The autumn harvest could be saved if the conflict ends quickly. Otherwise, we will have to stop tasting Darjeelings for a while, and instead send positive thoughts to everyone living in those mountains; the people I know well and am so fond of, who do not deserve to live through such difficult times.
For the past three weeks, tensions have been running high in Darjeeling. Businesses, roads and plantations have shut down, tourists have been asked to leave. The reason for the general strike is that the people of Nepali origin, who make up the majority of the population, are being forced to learn Bengali at school – a language from a region they hate. Darjeeling is part of West Bengal, which is resented by the independence movement, who want to create a new state within the Indian Union: Gorkhaland. This issue has been boiling over for the past 30 years, and demonstrations are frequent. With a three-week strike taking place during the summer harvest season, the plantations will struggle to cope this year. This is on top of the 30% decline in volumes harvested due to the dry spring this year.
Indian tea producers are complaining about unfair competition from Nepal, and I don’t buy their argument. They don’t complain that Japan, China and other countries produce tea, they have to deal with it. But with Nepal, India is behaving as if it could put pressure on this country, which has no access to the sea, to impose conditions, make it pay taxes, and in this way prevent it from exporting its tea. Nepal is a particularly poor country which buys most of its consumer goods from India, and is therefore dependant on India to a certain extent. India is using this to its advantage. Among the complaints levelled by Indian producers, particularly those in Darjeeling, is that Nepalese teas create unfair competition for Darjeelings. But to my mind, Nepalese teas have their own character, they are recognisable, they don’t need the prestige of Darjeeling to enjoy success. They offer excellent value for money, much better than Darjeelings, and it is most likely this which is irritating India most. Lastly, and this is a positive thing, Nepal is starting to build a good reputation for itself in tea. This is a great improvement on the dodgy dealings that have been going on for years with certain unscrupulous Darjeeling gardens, who bring in fresh tea leaves from Nepal at low prices, process them in India, and then pass them off as pure Darjeelings!
In Darjeeling and Nepal, you cannot trust the name of a garden blindly. Of course, plantations such as Turzum, Singbulli, Puttabong, Thurbo, Margaret’s Hope and Castleton have a much higher reputation than others. The same goes for Guranse and Shangri La in Nepal. But it is essential to understand that even the most prestigious gardens cannot produce high-quality teas all the time. At some point in the year they end up selling pretty nondescript ones. During the rainy season, for example, even an experienced planter cannot produce good tea, because the leaves grow too quickly and have no time to develop their essential oils. Also, each plantation has plots that are more or less well oriented, and planted with different cultivars. On Monday you might produce a sublime tea using leaves harvested from an excellent plot, and on Tuesday produce a very ordinary tea from a different part of the plantation. To sum up: yes, some gardens can make remarkable teas, but watch out, as they also produce mediocre ones. So you have to be very selective, and taste a vast amount of tea, to be able to recognise the best.
For those who wish to try spring – or first-flush – teas, here are some tips. Darjeelings harvested in March and April develop sustained floral notes accompanied by a touch of astringency and bitterness. For brioche and floral aromas combined, try Nepalese first-flush teas, which are harvested from the start of April. Those who enjoy chestnut, mineral and vegetal notes would do well with new-season Chinese teas (the rarest and most sought-after and therefore the most expensive are those known as pre-Qingming teas, harvested before Chinese Tomb-Sweeping Day which takes place at the beginning of April). Lastly, for fans of iodine, cut grass and steamed vegetable notes, Japanese Ichibanchas are a pure delight. They are harvested between the end of April and the middle of May. Of course I haven’t covered them all here, and there are other countries to discover, but if we are talking about springtime and nature reawakening, and if you want teas that evoke gardens and rising sap, these are the ones I think of first.