In Nepal, it is not the year 2023 but 2078, until April. Just a few days before the New Year, I was lucky enough to watch the sacred dances at Shechen monastery. Behind the scenes, the monks get ready. They each put on their costume. The boy plays the role of the jester. He and his companions will entertain the spectators and play tricks on them between dances. These atsaras remind us of our human condition. To be human: that is all I wish for us at the start of this new year.
When I buy certain teas I have a strong sense that we’re helping a community. I feel that the money paid for the remarkable work that goes into making a great tea will be shared fairly and won’t just benefit one individual. When I visit a plantation I often ask myself: if I pay twice as much for the tea here, who’ll get the money? In some cases I have an intuition that the money would only go to one person or a particular group of people and that the pickers themselves wouldn’t get any extra. In other places I feel certain that our gesture will be shared. That the whole village will be able to congratulate itself for having made such delicious teas and that every effort will be made to make more. And in these situations I have a strong sense of how we’re helping. Here in Nepal, the team from Palais des Thés is meeting the team at the Norling factory. You’re supporting the whole village when you buy their superb tea. (photo : Anna Galitzine)
When it comes to picking tea, you have to do it to understand it. It’s difficult to imagine what it feels like to stand for a whole day, sometimes on a steep slope, with a ten- or twenty-kilogram basket on your back. This basket is held in place by a strap across the forehead while the picker quickly plucks the bud and the two young leaves from every stem on the bush with their nimble fingers. The gesture has to be repeated thousands of times and the young shoots must be thrown over the shoulder with a certain dexterity to make sure they land in the basket. Here, yours truly is concentrating on the task. (Photo: Uday Yangya)
Part of my job involves taking those who help to promote tea with me on my research trips. Many of my colleagues have never seen a tea plant in real life, so it is both a pleasure and a duty to ask them to accompany me on a tour of the plantations. Last week I was in Ilam Valley with Anna, Cassandra, Svetlana, Clément, Pierre and Thomas. We went from one small producer to another, meeting extraordinary people and admiring breathtaking scenery. Together, we rolled the leaves we had picked ourselves, joined by Léo, who works with me, searching for the world’s finest teas. We wished each other a Happy New Year, because in this incredible country we had just entered the year 2079. What wonderful moments these are, what incredible discoveries. To travel to such remote regions is, in a way, the trip of a lifetime, and nothing makes me happier than sharing it, and giving others a glimpse of this extraordinary profession.
One of the joys of being a tea researcher is the opportunity to discover other cultures. Here, during the Tsechu festival, the monks breathe life into the characters whose masks they wear for the procession or dance.
On my way to Ilam valley, I stop in Kathmandu. Matthieu Ricard invited me to the Shechen monastery for the celebration of Tshechu, a festival that includes the performance of sacred Tibetan dances. On the eve of the big day, the monks rehearse. Tomorrow, they will take to the stage again, this time wearing a heavy, lavish costume and an impressive mask.
I’m back from Nepal, happy and surprised, after a trip with my friends from Karuna-Shechen, the non-profit association founded by Matthieu Ricard. I asked them to accompany me deep into the country’s easternmost valley to see for themselves the living conditions of the pickers in this region. My aim was to convince them of the benefits of Palais des Thés and Karuna working together to improve the villagers’ living conditions. But after we’d spoken with a number of people in their local language, Karuna’s enthusiastic response left me stunned. Their answer was this: in the 10 years since these villagers have been growing tea, their living conditions have improved to such an extent that we don’t need to be focusing our efforts on supporting them. Instead, it’s important for us to understand how worthwhile tea growing has been for these people, and how producing quality tea that costs 20 or 30 times more than mediocre tea has empowered an entire community to be able to take charge of its own future.
It now remains to be seen how we can help the people we visited so we don’t disappoint them, and above all to understand how this model of responsible tea growing could be easily duplicated.
The terrible situation in India due to the pandemic, which I hope will spare Nepal, reminds me – not that I need it – how dear my Indian friends are to me. There are too many to name all of them, in Darjeeling, Kolkata and elsewhere. One of them is my friend Anil Darmapalan, who I first met more than 20 years ago when he was running the Thiashola plantation. He gave me such a warm welcome, along with his wife Sharmila and all the plantation staff.
After having been an auditor for a certification organisation, and therefore particularly aware of all the issues involved with converting a conventional plantation into a biodynamic one, Anil now lives near Ooty (Tamil Nadu), surrounded by flowers. I’m thinking of Sharmila and Anil, and all my Indian friends, and hoping they stay well.
I miss the roads of Nepal, the streets that run through mountain villages, the tracks that turn muddy in the rain then dry to dust after being baked by a fierce sun. The dust gets thrown up by Jeeps that honk at anything and everything on the road, chickens included, before speeding past. It settles on a roadside stall, causing the vendor to emerge from time to time to wave a feather duster about with little conviction, or perhaps throws a bucket of water over the road. I miss the villages with their colourful, loosely boarded houses, the smells and hubbub of the market, the people who smile at you, the burning incense, the vibrant simplicity. Then suddenly, the sound of the gong, which echoes across the valley from mountain to mountain.
When you taste a large number of teas that are particularly tannic and astringent, you have to decide whether to swallow or not. In order to protect their palate, a taster will swill the liquor around in their mouth to analyse it, then spit it out. This allows them to remain neutral when assessing the next sample.