When you think of Southern India, you think of colourful temples, ancient spice trading posts, beaches lined with palm trees, boats gliding along complex networks of canals and backwaters, and luxuriant gardens. Southern India is less well-known for its mountains. Yet what are called the Ghats, literally “steps”, peak at more than 2,000 metres above sea level. This altitude and climate is well suited to tea plants.
I visit many places I never want to leave, where I’m surrounded by dreamy landscapes and amazing nature, where I meet such kind and lovely people, but I always come back. I often come back with delicious teas, that’s my job, and with these photos I share with you. I love to share them with you as it’s a way of prolonging my travels, days and weeks later. I show you my photos here, I write a few lines of explanation, and in doing so, I’m transported. Thanks to you I return, I’m back in the mountains I travelled through a little too quickly, and now I have time to contemplate them, here, in your company.
Farming methods change over time. Tea bushes sometimes used to be planted following the slope of the ground, resulting in vertical lines like those visible on the left of this photo. Today, young bushes are planted in horizontal rows, to reduce soil erosion. In heavy rain, the water runs off more slowly and the tea bushes hold the soil in place.
I’ve known Anil for more than 10 years. Back then, he was running a beautiful tea plantation, Thaishola, in southern India. I visited him there several times, and he taught me a great deal. He made high-quality teas in the Nilgiri Mountains. Then he became an auditor for organisations that certify tea produced using methods which respect the planet and its people. His efforts were admirable. And now, thanks to his immense experience, he advises tea plantations. Recently, I visited him with a team from Palais des Thés. He was so attentive to us, and went to great lengths to arrange meetings with people he considers to be the best producers in the region. We pestered him with questions from morning till night. He also let us stay in this incredible Ootacamund Club, where we were transported 200 years back in time to the reign of Queen Victoria. He dedicated all his time to us, and never tired of our thirst for knowledge about tea. He was generous with every remark and explanation. Thank you Anil!
In this blog, which is celebrating its seventh year, I love to talk about the work I’ve been doing for more than 30 years; my job is my passion. Part of the joy comes from sharing it in situ with my colleagues at Palais des Thés and showing them what I do every day. They accompany me on tours around the tea fields and I share with them the time I spend with farmers and planters, which is so important in my view, learning about every aspect of their work and their life. Here, from left to right, are Benoît (poor framing on my part has deprived him of his right ear), Audrey, Sylvie, Frédéric, Constance and Linda, who don’t look unhappy to be on the trip.
During a recent stay in Ilam Valley, I took the opportunity to meet several Darjeeling planters, and talked with them at length about the situation in the district. This is the latest news I can bring you, as well as a few figures to help you understand. In 2017, 80% of the Darjeeling harvest was lost. Ninety percent of the autumn harvest alone was lost. The separatist leader is now in hiding, and 105 days of strikes have resulted in no concrete gains for the population. They don’t know who will pay for the massive financial losses suffered by the tea plantations, of course, but also by everyone whose business relates to tourism. Then there are the shop-keepers who had to remain closed for more than three months. Throughout this stand-off between the autonomists and the government of Western Bengal, many people who were living in the mountains left to find work elsewhere. Now, 30% of this population have gone, and we don’t know if they will return. And most people who live in the mountains work in the tea fields. Despite this set-back, the herbs that had grown over the tea plants have been pulled up. There’s still a lot of work to do to cut back the bushes, though. Normally they are cut back every four or five years, but this winter, because the plants were left to grow for three months, they must be cut back to form what’s known as the plucking table. This winter pruning will delay next spring’s Darjeelings, which are usually harvested from the beginning of March. Darjeeling’s planters are unanimous in their view that there won’t be any teas in 2018 before around 20th March, and even then, only a few. The harvesting period will be shorter, the quantities smaller, and the prices higher. Another subject all our planters agree on is that if the separatists go on strike again, they will allow the tea plantations to operate normally so that people don’t suffer any more than they have to.
On the tea plantations, I come up against a variety of creatures: charming ladybirds, stunning dragonflies, beautiful butterflies, spiders of all sorts, some harmless, others not, tarantulas, leeches, passerines, birds of prey, rodents, worms, mongooses, snakes as long as my arm, including cobras, roe deer and much more. I only meet the Indian bison – the gaur – in Southern India. They are incredibly powerful. It takes several tigers, still present in this region, to bring one down. Gaurs walk quite daintily among the tea plants. While they don’t eat the leaves of these shrubs, they do munch on all the undesirable plants that grow between rows. It’s a good way to keep the weeds down.
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)