By the time you read this, I’ll be with my friend Alex, tasting each of his teas. His Satemwa plantation in Malawi is one of the best in Africa. Not content with making tea for industrial producers, Alex set up different workshops to enable him to experiment – with success. He’s tried all types of processing methods to make semi-oxidised, green, white, fermented, smoked and sculpted teas. Curiosity doesn’t kill the cat; on the contrary, it helps us progress, and Alex is a brilliant example.
Tea was introduced to Malawi at end of the 19th century by Scottish missionaries. It grows in the far south of former Nyasaland, a stone’s throw from Mozambique. Like many African countries, most of Malawi’s tea is grown for the tea bag market. But it is sometimes possible to find rarer teas, if you search carefully.
To celebrate “déconfinement” in France, I’m taking you to Malawi. I expect not many of you have been to this country in East Africa, and, from my experience, not many people can find it on a map either. The south of former Nyasaland is dominated by beautiful mountain ranges, as well as high plateaus covered with tea plants.
Today, I’m offering you a new way to travel in the post-Covid era. No need to take a plane or get a visa. There’s no time difference. You can view the photos of this blog on a big screen and travel from one country to another, even sipping a tea from the relevant country at the same time. Try it!
In less than three months, the spring cycle will begin, and with it will come a deluge of new pluckings. As in every year, in addition to our regular selection, I will set off with my assistant tea researcher in search of rare teas. The work of a tea researcher involves constantly reviewing the teas we choose and tasting new teas from farmers we work with already (there’s no guarantee that someone who produced an exceptional tea the previous year will produce anything as good the year after). The work also consists of seeking out new farmers, both in well-established production regions as well as new areas where pioneers are starting to gain the necessary expertise. This photo was taken in Malawi, a country that just a few years ago, nobody would have suspected of being capable of producing good tea.
We all like different kinds of holidays. I like to take a step back – or up. This might mean hiking to reach a mountain peak or walking up a hill, then sitting down and enjoying the view for hours. It can also mean reading, which is another way of “getting away” and taking a step back from everyday life. Or, I like to sit by the sea, cup of tea in hand, and look out across the water. It feels good.
Africa produces enormous quantities of tea – did you know that Kenya is the world’s biggest exporter? It’s mainly low grade, destined for the production of tea bags. But if you look carefully, you can find some incredible teas in countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Malawi. Discovering rare teas in Africa, Asia and elsewhere is what my job is all about. It’s a job that is constantly changing from one season to the next, one year to the next. No two harvests are the same. You must taste again and again, season after season, to find the best teas of the moment.
My job not only consists of hunting down rare teas that offer great flavour sensations and tasting pleasures. My motto is as follows: I want the teas that do us such good not to harm those who harvest and process them, or the planet. Such a requirement is not always easy to fulfil. With the sometimes-unacceptable working conditions, pesticide residues and excessive use of fertilisers that destroy river life, there is plenty to contend with. But I’m not a pessimist. Firstly, the higher the quality of tea, the better the practices (there are several reasons for this, such as altitude, which is a factor in the quality of tea due to the cooler nights that impede predators that might otherwise attack the plants). Secondly, a tea can only be exceptional if the greatest attention is paid to the harvest itself and to every stage in the processing, which means planters and farmers must ensure they have the best workers, who are well trained and enthusiastic. Lastly, I’ve gained enough experience now to know what to look for when I visit a plantation in terms of agricultural practices and the way the men and women are treated and how their expertise is honoured. I refuse to work with many producers. And I appreciate even more the pleasure of promoting the amazing work done by many farmers whose methods are exemplary and who know what it means to support their fellow humans every day.
My first trip to Malawi was just over three years ago. Until then, nobody had sold tea from that country in France, and I’m delighted to have found some very good teas there, which have been well received among tea enthusiasts. In a few days’ time I will be back in the far south of this magnificent country to see teas being made, including a dark tea and a smoked tea, and to taste them with Alex and his team. I will take some teas from other countries with me, which is something else I like to do in my work: encourage producers’ curiosity by getting them to try teas made by other people, not so they can copy them, but to inspire them and to connect them, through the tasting, with other farmers who have equally precious expertise.
This photo may seem odd, and rightly so: these aren’t tea leaves, but mint. However, this photo perfectly illustrates an aspect of my work. Many small producers around the world grow tea, harvesting and selling the fresh leaves to a co-operative, a farmer bigger than they are, or a company, who then processes the leaves. These small producers can sometimes have strong economic power, when demand for leaves is higher than supply. But more often than not they’re dependent on the buyer. So it’s always better if a small producer makes only part of their income from tea, and grows other crops alongside it such as potatoes, ginger, fruit and so on. This protects them from fluctuations in the price of tea, and gives them greater peace of mind.
I can never get over the beauty of Malawi. Every week, as I prepare for my blog article, I go back over the different photos I like but haven’t yet used here. And it’s always the pictures of Malawi that capture my attention for a long time. The scenery is truly stunning. I know my photo isn’t that good, you can see the tea plants aren’t completely in focus, but the extraordinary light, all those shades of green and yellow, the beautiful blue sky fringed with white clouds, the high plateaus, that wildness extending to the horizon, those soft lines and other, more angular ones… We live in such an incredible world! If we remember to open our eyes and look, of course. And if we aren’t set on destroying it.