The harvests will begin soon in Darjeeling. Happily, the tea is still picked by hand. The low-altitude plots are harvested first, for a simple reason: the tea plants have benefited from higher temperatures, meaning the terminal bud has grown faster. We can see that this photo was taken at the bottom of the valley, due to the gentleness of the slope and the density of the covering that protects the bushes from excess sunlight.
The first Darjeelings of the year are generally described as the “first flush” in English, but in French, they’re known as the “spring harvest”. The latter is misleading as the harvest doesn’t fully coincide with the season. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the low-altitude plantations that use irrigation techniques benefit from more clement weather and sometimes start producing small batches from the end of February. Secondly, the leaves on the same shoots are harvested every eight to ten days, and after three successive growths, the shoot’s thwarted growth leads it to send out a side shoot (this is known as the banjhi), which is of a lower quality and marks the end of the first harvests. This means that the so-called “spring harvests” actually come to an end around mid-April.
Who do you admire the most, Sylvie Lavabre, a French journalist, asked me. I admire people who don’t give up, I admire adventurers and artists. I also admire tolerance and non-violence. I admire people who don’t compromise their values, who pursue a goal other than earning more money, or of gaining more power. I admire altruists, people who are happy when others are happy. I admire the highest achievers, the champions, the finest artisans, everyone who tries their hardest. I admire those who fail and pick themselves up and find the strength to try again. I admire people who devote a part or all of their life to bringing up others, raising children, educating them, teaching them. And I admire people who find happiness in what they have.
When I travel across some regions of France, I’m alarmed. Where are the hedges? Where are the field margins? When I travel around the world, if I come across a tea plantation that extends as far as the eye can see without so much as a tree, a hedgerow or a field margin left to nature, I run a mile. I can be sure that I won’t find clean teas there, grown in conditions that respect nature. To produce clean teas without the use of pesticides, you need to work with nature. You need ladybirds to attack other insects, you need birds to eat the insects, you need earthworms to aerate the soil. You sometimes need cows, to mix their manure with green waste to feed the worms and enrich the soil. But all these creatures need somewhere to live. Hedges, trees, field margins, even a cowshed. In my job as a tea researcher, which involves seeking out good quality products grown using clean and sustainable farming methods that respect nature, a field containing a single crop covering hundreds of acres is a nightmare scenario.
Here, in Poobong (India), is a landscape that offers hope for biodiversity.
When I tell people that I sometimes taste 50 or 100 teas a day, or even more, many are surprised, and ask: how can you try that many teas and still taste something?
In fact, it’s easier to taste 20 teas than just one, especially if they come from the same terroir, because as I move from one liquor to the next, comparing how long they linger in the mouth, their flavour and their aromatic profile, it becomes quite easy to form an opinion on each one. When you taste a single tea, you have to be a complete master of tasting techniques and have a solid knowledge of the typical characteristics of that type to be able to form a proper opinion.
In general, Japanese roasted teas work very well with food such as shellfish, pan-fried salmon and smoked fish, as well as desserts with red fruit or praline. They are also ideal at the end of a meal, even for coffee-lovers who appreciate their roasted aromas.
Here, Shiraore Kuki Hojicha stands up well to a Pont-l’Evêque. On contact with the cheese, it develops woody, burnt aromas as well as notes of cooked fruit. It’s a great combination.
The tea was infused for an hour in room-temperature water. It can then be kept in the fridge for 24 hours.
I’m often asked what the letters and words mean following the name of a tea. Let’s take the example of a first-flush Darjeeling, Singbulli DJ-12-SFTGFOP1-Clonal-Superb.
- Singbulli is the name of the plantation
- DJ12/19 means it’s the 12th harvest of the year 2019 (when you see EX12/19 instead of DJ12/19, EX stands for “extra”, meaning an additional batch, processed in addition to the main batch of the day)
- The letters SFTGFOP1 refer to the appearance of the dry leaf. The grade FTGFOP stands for “Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe”. This means it’s a whole-leaf tea with plenty of tips, or buds. Over the years, the story has grown and the description has expanded. S means “Super”, and 1 means… Who knows? It’s a mystery!
Today, only Indian producers use the grade SFTGFOP1.
Next week I’ll tell you about the descriptions Clonal, Superb, Exotic and Delight!
First flush teas are often the best, as the year’s first harvest. With winter coming to a close, cold nights keep the plants growing slowly, which results in richer flavours. Every year, it is Darjeeling that opens the season, before Nepal, China, or Japan.
In March, I sometimes taste nearly a hundred teas a day, with each of the 87 tea estates in Darjeeling manufacturing very small batches—sometimes no more than 20 or 30 kilos. In this region, during the period when the highest quality of tea is produced, one day’s harvest is never mixed with the next. The result is a constant parade of very different tastings. Buyers snap up the very best batches in a matter of hours, at premium prices, which is why it is so important to know every producer and maintain the best possible relationship with each of them.
On tea plantations, I come across pickers, of course, as well as villagers walking home. More rarely, I also come across television crews. I’ve just spent two days with Julie and Romain, who asked to join me. Julie is a journalist and Romain, pictured here, is a television reporter. They wanted me to talk about my work, and also to carry on as if they weren’t there, so that they could observe me in the tea fields, tasting tea and talking to people I meet. With them in tow, my work is a bit different from usual, but just as interesting. As with customers who come into a shop for the first time and ask “Tell me about tea!”, I explain as much as I can to them – about life on the plantation and how to make the best teas. Now I’m looking forward to seeing their wonderful report, which will be broadcasted on 16 March at 7 p.m during the programme “50 Minutes Inside” on the French television channel TF1. I think it will only last a few minutes – the time it takes to have a cup of tea.
You can drink your tea in the kitchen, in the living room or in bed. You can enjoy it on the balcony, in the garden, at your desk, or while admiring a beautiful view. You can also taste your tea on the plantation itself. First, you cover a simple table with a red cloth, to contrast with the green. Next, you place the dry leaves on a white sheet in order to examine them while the liquor reaches the right temperature. Then you savour your tea surrounded by tea plants, the same ones your leaves have come from. Thanks to Vinod Kumar for this wonderful tasting on the Achoor plantation.