In Nepal, the effects of the earthquake are ongoing. Whole villages are still in ruins, their inhabitants living among these ruins, in houses that have half-collapsed, covered over with a tarpaulin for a roof. In Kathmandu, only the old town was affected. There too, there is no sign of reconstruction. A significant number of the capital’s most beautiful monuments have been reduced to dust, and surrounding houses are in a fragile state. While they await repair, they are being propped up by wooden struts, and signs warn people of the risk of collapsing buildings.
When we taste tea, we pay attention to the leaves at every stage. Of course we are interested in the liquor, which we drink, and we also examine the dried leaves: are they whole or broken? Do they contain buds? What colour are the leaves? Are they all similar? Lastly, the infused leaves can tell us a great deal. We smell them, and press them, as Nirananda Acharya is doing here. Often, the smell of the wet leaves can tell us as much about the tea as drinking the liquor itself. The wet leaves inform us about every stage of the processing. We can pick up on the slightest defect, or on the contrary, we can revel in the wonderful bouquet.
Indian tea producers are complaining about unfair competition from Nepal, and I don’t buy their argument. They don’t complain that Japan, China and other countries produce tea, they have to deal with it. But with Nepal, India is behaving as if it could put pressure on this country, which has no access to the sea, to impose conditions, make it pay taxes, and in this way prevent it from exporting its tea. Nepal is a particularly poor country which buys most of its consumer goods from India, and is therefore dependant on India to a certain extent. India is using this to its advantage. Among the complaints levelled by Indian producers, particularly those in Darjeeling, is that Nepalese teas create unfair competition for Darjeelings. But to my mind, Nepalese teas have their own character, they are recognisable, they don’t need the prestige of Darjeeling to enjoy success. They offer excellent value for money, much better than Darjeelings, and it is most likely this which is irritating India most. Lastly, and this is a positive thing, Nepal is starting to build a good reputation for itself in tea. This is a great improvement on the dodgy dealings that have been going on for years with certain unscrupulous Darjeeling gardens, who bring in fresh tea leaves from Nepal at low prices, process them in India, and then pass them off as pure Darjeelings!
The preparation for a tasting is a special moment. I watch what my host is doing, each precise movement. The leaves are presented on a base that allows you to see them, then the tea is weighed out to the nearest tenth of a gram, before being steeped for a specific time. Each tea must be brewed in exactly the same conditions. Before tasting the tea, while the liquors cool a little, I like to take a few photos of the room itself, of people going about their activities, their faces, or the landscape. I often make use of windows. The reflections can be unexpected. I take photos through the window, while others look on, puzzled. Here, at the Kanchenjunga Tea Estate, through the grille-covered window, you can see the tea being prepared against a background of mountains and the tea garden.
I met Rana Bahadurdiyali a few days ago in Ilam valley, in Nepal. Twenty-four years ago, Rana founded the co-operative Teenjure, which today has no less than 234 farmers who combine their tea production. This year, Teenjure has started to produce some very good, interesting and varied teas. When I asked Rana what he wanted me to write about him, he told me how hard everyone had worked, how challenging it was for the whole community of Teenjure to start growing tea – clearing the land, planting the tea plants, building the factory and installing the equipment. Twenty-four years ago, when they began this project, they had no water, no road, no electricity. It took them two years to build the factory, Rana, aged 82, tells me, smiling.
I’m writing from the Nirvana Garden Hotel in Kathmandu. In Buddhist culture, “nirvana” means a state of bliss. I find it in the country’s mountains when I drink sublime teas in a protected landscape, often made up of jungle and neat rows of tea plants. The harmony between the experience of tasting and the contemplation of nature fills me with happiness. Tomorrow, I’m leaving for the Ilam valley in the east of the country, to visit farmers I already know, and meet some new ones.
This Sunday, people were voting in Kathmandu. Here, on election days, to ensure the process is peaceful and democratic, all car traffic is banned and the sale of alcohol is suspended. Also, around the polling stations, there are signs reminding you that it is strictly forbidden to carry a gun in the vicinity.
In Darjeeling and Nepal, you cannot trust the name of a garden blindly. Of course, plantations such as Turzum, Singbulli, Puttabong, Thurbo, Margaret’s Hope and Castleton have a much higher reputation than others. The same goes for Guranse and Shangri La in Nepal. But it is essential to understand that even the most prestigious gardens cannot produce high-quality teas all the time. At some point in the year they end up selling pretty nondescript ones. During the rainy season, for example, even an experienced planter cannot produce good tea, because the leaves grow too quickly and have no time to develop their essential oils. Also, each plantation has plots that are more or less well oriented, and planted with different cultivars. On Monday you might produce a sublime tea using leaves harvested from an excellent plot, and on Tuesday produce a very ordinary tea from a different part of the plantation. To sum up: yes, some gardens can make remarkable teas, but watch out, as they also produce mediocre ones. So you have to be very selective, and taste a vast amount of tea, to be able to recognise the best.
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.
Some tea plantations have rather ordinary origins, and the Kuwapani plantation is one of them. A few years ago there was a rundown angora rabbit farm in Kuwapani that was only just limping along. I’m talking about the farm but I’m sure the same could have been said for the poor rabbits, bred for their fur alone. The owner saw a tea plantation being established on the hill opposite, followed by another. He observed the harvesting and processing of the leaves. He developed a taste for what his neighbours, Jun Chiyabari and Guranse, produced, and he witnessed their growing success. Then, one day, he decided to change his business, radically. He opened up the hutches, installed machines in his main building to process the tea leaves (rollers, dryers and so on), planted his land with tea, recruited an experienced, talented man to oversee the work, and a few years later the Kuwapani plantation had made its name in the world of tea. I heard this story while I was staying at Kuwapani and asked the owner about an object that had been intriguing me. On the mantelpiece in the living room sits a magnificent porcelain rabbit.