Before starting to work with tea, I dreamed of being a journalist. I liked the idea of finding out about people, asking them questions, understanding what they do, getting them to explain things that are sometimes complicated, and trying to make them comprehensible. I liked the idea of being an investigator, of gathering information, of putting my interviewee at ease and having an interesting conversation. I wanted to do a job that took me all over the world and let me meet people from all backgrounds and cultures, men and women who speak a different language, who have a different history from mine. I wanted to receive their message and transmit it. In the end, I created this role of tea researcher, which didn’t exist before. I could have stayed behind my counter in my tea shop, which I enjoyed, talking to customers, listening to them, helping them. But I wanted to do more, to investigate, to find out where the tea leaves come from. First I learned to taste, to recognise flavours and aromas; then I learned other languages. I was thirsty for knowledge, I wanted to discover an unexplored world, that of tea. So I packed my bags and I went to meet farmers, growers, traders, pickers and planters. I entered that world a little more with every trip. I took my time. I set out to meet the people who live in the mountains where tea is grown. I found them in the fields, in the village square, in front of the factory. I sat down with them, I rested. I listened, then listened some more. I recorded everything. And that is how, 32 years later, everything I found so rewarding and enjoyable in the job of a journalist, I find now, in my work as a tea researcher.
We know that social media algorithms are programmed to put you in contact with similarly-minded people to make you believe that everyone shares the same views as you, and at the start of this new year, I’m making a resolution to spend less time on social networks, smart phones and tablets, because that’s not the real world. I wish you all more time spent meeting real people. For your delight. I wish you a real year!
What if we tried to think about our children? We all have immense power every time we spend our money. The power to make the world better. Spending money means encouraging people. Encouraging a producer, encouraging a distribution system. Encouraging good practice, encouraging healthy, unprocessed products, fairly traded, respecting people and the planet. We have the power to encourage artisans, co-operatives, farmers, town-centre shopkeepers, local producers. Nobody forces us to shop in big supermarkets, nobody forces us to push around trolleys loaded with industrially-produced foods, wrapped in plastic, containing mystery ingredients in addition to the sugar, preservatives and palm oil. We can consume better, and less. We can consume healthily. We can favour good producers.
And when we look at the labels, we might be surprised to see that the best is not always the most expensive (with tea, for example, a box of tea is often more expensive per kilo than a good quality loose-leaf tea sold by a specialist retailer). So what are we waiting for?
Some teas are produced on a vast estate with up to a thousand people living on it. Some are produced by a co-operative of small producers. And some are produced on a simple farm, like here, at Pathivara. Different farms have different social structures, and I prefer the ones on a human scale. A far cry from the cliché of the planter living cut off from the world in a magnificent bungalow (inherited from the days of British rule), when tea is produced on a farm, villagers often spend the evening there too. They sit around together, chatting, chatting, chatting. Sometimes they drink, sometimes they play music, sometimes they dance. It’s life, quite simply.
Among the plantations worthy of attention recently is Pathivara, in Nepal. Here, I’m with the plantation’s father, the man who started it. In just a few years, he’s succeeded in producing delicious teas, so far with very modest resources. What’s more, the teas are certified organic. A new building is going up; I laid the first stone on my previous visit. It will house more sophisticated machinery, although the team is already producing some very fine teas. Since the start of June, I’ve bought three batches: Pathivara Classic, Pathivara Black and Pathivara Dragon Yeti – these mountains are full of poetry. Each tea is very different, with very varied aromatic profiles. Here, poetry and gastronomy come together.
I’m concerned about the state of the planet, and the proliferation of plastic is one example of this. We might think of tea plantations as idyllic places high in the mountains, some on steep slopes, far from cities, surrounded by beautiful countryside. And all that is true. But tea requires a lot of manpower, and many people live in villages around the plantations. These people buy products that are often packaged in plastic, and this plastic needs disposing of.
On the tea plantations, it’s not unusual to see rubbish lying on the ground between the rows of plants, simply because people don’t think about it and throw away a bag, a packet of cigarettes or biscuits, in the middle of the field. This waste accumulates! The ground is sometimes littered with it after people have eaten their meal. The best solution I’ve seen involves holding a litter-picking day, once a year, for all villagers, including children. The atmosphere is good-spirited, it makes people take more responsibility, and at school on the same day, they talk about the lifetime of the different types of rubbish. A plastic bag will last for 400 years!
My blog is about tea, but it’s also about meeting people. I didn’t know this lady. She was just standing outside her house, opposite a tea factory. I liked her pretty purple hat and the touches of purple under her coat set against the purple backdrop behind her. I knew nothing about this lady, except where she lived; we simply smiled at each other and I held up my camera – by way of asking her if I could take her photo – and she agreed. And there she was, and here she is. I’m so happy when I’m travelling, walking down the lanes of remote villages, or through the fields. I’m so happy when I photograph them, these men and women… we exchange a few words, we laugh and often we sit a while together, on a bench, a step, a stone… any place will do. And we get to know each other – just a brief encounter – then I go on my way again. And to share them with you, these faces, these moments… as I see it, that’s just as important.
I find it very rewarding to tell you about the men and women who make the teas you drink. Today, I’d like to introduce you to Saran RAI. Based in Arya Tara (Nepal), Saran produces different grades of tea, but just 300 kg a year. He uses my favourite cultivar: AV2. It is a very small, very high-quality plantation. Half of the fresh leaves that make his teas come from his own fields, and half come from the 50 or so local farmers. When I ask what he is most proud of, Saran replies: “being visited by people from afar”. It is true: he receives very few visitors. The route is arduous, especially the last few kilometers. I walked them, on an almost impassable track, surrounded by beautiful countryside. Although his plantation is not certified organic, I have no doubt that Saran uses organic methods.
In Nepal, factories often look quite makeshift, from the sheet roofing to the very basic structure. Teas are tasted outside, on trestles. This is a long way from Darjeeling, with its British colonial influence. But we shouldn’t judge by appearances. Inside these modest-looking buildings, the equipment is not only very good (small rolling machines from China or Taiwan, quality ovens, machines that delicately shape the leaves, etc.), but most of all, you find a unique expertise and creativity. The people are young and passionate – again, very different from the image of the established planter in Darjeeling. They live and breathe tea, and think of almost nothing else. Their sole objective is to make delicious teas, whatever the colour. The lack of a tea tradition in Nepal undoubtedly frees them up to explore new leaf shapes, new types of rolling, new approaches to production in general. “Handmade” Nepalese teas (as opposed to the crush, tear, curl teas and the big factories, which also exist in the Ilam region) have a bright future ahead of them.
In the Himalayas, people love music. Whenever the opportunity arises, they take up their instruments – sometimes a guitar, sometimes something more traditional – and they sing and dance. Here, with the Limbu people, everyone is wearing traditional dress to celebrate my arrival. They played and danced until the last rays of the setting sun, overlooking magnificent mountains. Later, they lit the fire. It’s a moment of pure happiness.