I’d like to introduce you to Kitano Shuichi. Of all the farmers I’ve met in Japan, he’s the most passionate and inspiring about organic practices. He’s been using these methods for 30 years, introduced by his father. The latter, convinced of the health benefits of organic tea, suffered financially for ten years, due to very low yields, but he pulled through. Today, he sells his tea for a good price because demand for organic tea is higher. Kitano Shuichi and his father make their own compost, while others buy it in from outside. But most significantly, they never use anything to do with animals in their compost. So that means no cow manure, for example. They believe in biodynamic methods and use them successfully. They’re so proud of their compost they insist you taste it. But if you want to know their exact recipe, you can ask all you like but they’ll reveal nothing save their good humour, with a smile.
For those who want 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 a combination of brioche and floral aromas, 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 you want teas that evoke gardens and rising sap, these are the ones I think of first.
Last week I talked about how the mixing of tea leaves by Japanese co-operatives can limit the range of flavours in the country’s teas, but there are also some very positive developments coming from Japan. For example, a few decades ago, the country could be described as mono-cultivar: the vast majority of growers used the Yabukita variety. Happily, today, there are an increasing number of cultivars used in Japan, such as sae-midori, oku-hikari and asatsuyu. A greater range of cultivars means that once the tea is infused, it produces a wider palette of aromas and flavours. And that is good news for tea lovers.
I have a regret when it comes to Japanese teas. My Japanese friends know it and share it. It is this: in Japan, few farmers produce finished tea. They are not usually set up to do this in terms of equipment. Most farmers focus on growing the best possible tea and harvesting it at the optimal time, but then they immediately sell the fresh leaves to co-operatives, who finish the production process. However, these co-operatives don’t keep the batches separate so they can process them individually. They put all the tea harvested by different farmers together. This results in a certain uniformity of flavour, whereas if each farmer took care of the production process right to the end, we would undoubtedly get a wider variety of flavours and aromas.
I’d like to introduce you to Mr Kumada. He lives with eight cats and grows tea on seven hectares in the extreme south of Japan, high above the city of Kagoshima, far from anywhere, even the smallest village. Mr Kumada took over from his father, who was also a farmer. But he only grows tea, unlike his father who also grew tobacco, and raised cows, pigs and silkworms. When I asked him what he’d like me to talk about on my blog, Mr Kumada immediately replied that he was proud of his farming methods, and of the organic certification he has obtained. He wants to keep the environment in the best possible condition; he is responsible for it, he says.
Mr Kumada produces green teas, of course, but also a black tea, which I’ve just chosen. It’s the first time I’ve tasted such a good black tea from Japan, an interesting tasting experience. Mr Kumada’s very likeable personality does play a part in my choice: I taste all teas blind, but it increases the pleasure I take in being able to promote his excellent tea.
In Japan, harvesting is often done by machine due to the high cost of labour. So instead of picking the leaves every week, as is the practice in some parts of the world, they are harvested three times a year, in spring, summer and autumn. On the island of Kyushu, which is hotter than the islands further north, tea can be harvested four times a year – in April, June, August and October. The most prized harvest is the first one, known here and elsewhere in Japan as Ichibancha.
Tomorrow I’m leaving Japan and this island of Kyushu I love, this city of Kagoshima, this region of volcanoes, some of the most active on the archipelago. I’m leaving these beautiful and remote tea fields in the mountains, and I’ll show you some photos of them soon. But today I want to share with you my favourite photo, it’s of a volcano called Sakurajima, and I took it while at the Senga-en garden north of Kagoshima. This is one of the most beautiful bays in the world, and here, tea grows inland as well as on some of the islands that lie off the coast. Green tea, of course, but also some black teas that aren’t always necessarily that special but are starting to sell as far away as Tokyo.
In the far south of Japan, the tea fields’ proximity to active volcanoes means the leaves have to be treated in a special way. Several times a year, the volcanoes spew out ash that is deposited on the surrounding land. So once the leaves have been harvested, they are rinsed before the first stage in processing: steaming. The rinsing in cold water lasts for 30 minutes and no longer, to minimise the loss of aromatic compounds.
If you want to get to know Japan, I recommend, as well as “The Empire of Signs” by Roland Barthes, “In Praise of Shadows” by Junichiro Tanizaki. I brought it with me to read here, in Japan. It talks about the relationship we have with light in the West and East: diffuse light versus direct light; a love of shiny things compared with a preference for matt. In the West, we want total light; elsewhere, like in Japan, more of a half-light. Tanizaki also talks about lacquerware, darkness, and Japanese cuisine, which go with shade. He says, about this cuisine, both the food itself and the dishes in which it’s served: “In the glare of harsh light, its aesthetic virtues would disappear in a flash.” He also says something I really like: “We Orientals make things beautiful by creating shadows in places that in themselves are insignificant.”
Many people think I only visit the plantations at harvest time. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I like to meet a planter or farmer when he has time for me, and nothing to sell. When he’s not constantly preoccupied by the quality of the tea he’s making at that moment. In Japan, if I visit the tea fields during the first half of May, when the country’s finest teas are being produced, the farmer will have very little time to spare. He’ll look after me, of course, but he’ll be stressed, because from sunrise to sunset he’ll be dashing between fields and factory, and trying his best to be in both places at once. On the other hand, now, at the beginning of January, here in Japan, farmers have time to spare. We can sit down together and taste plenty of teas, we can walk along the rows of tea plants, and inspect every tool and machine. I can understand the farmer’s challenges and ask plenty of questions. Then we can go and have lunch together in a traditional hostelry and sing the praises of the local specialities, enjoy the way the room looks out over a small pond, admire the beautiful carp, talk about everything and nothing. That’s how you learn. I’ve learnt an enormous amount about tea and how it’s grown in this way, by taking my time. Much more than I would by coming in the harvest season and hurriedly tasting and buying what I need. In life, and particularly in Japan, nothing beats taking your time, not worrying about wasting it. There is nothing to lose by doing things slowly. This is how I do things in every tea-producing country. Sometimes I visit in the harvest season, but I know that I also need to be there to listen, to understand. Above all, it’s important not to imagine that nothing happens outside the harvests. And it’s important to value slowness, especially in Asia. Here, it’s best to avoid rushing, efficiency, yields. Instead, we can enjoy the experience of a detour.