A beautiful landscape doesn’t always make a good tea. When I come from Bagdogra (India) and start the three-hour ascent into the Himalayan foothills, I love nothing more than stopping and admiring the view once I get through the stifling heat of Siliguri. The land is no longer completely flat, the city has disappeared from sight, the traffic and the horns have calmed down. Goats doze on the roadside. You start seeing far away above the trees and it helps bearing the heat: you suffocate much less when looking at a clear view. With the gentle breeze and the smell of the earth, I always stop walking between the tea plants.
Actually, I must say that they’re not good tea plants. People say that they are Darjeelings, but it’s not quite true: they are just outside the Darjeeling “appellation”, but close enough for dishonest merchants to use them to bulk out the real Darjeelings and cheat the buyers. This explains how there is four times as much Darjeeling tea sold worldwide than is actually produced.
Never mind, it’s the landscape that is worth admiring here. It is truly magnificent. I’m really attracted to this Terai plain, which used to be a jungle until the British cut down all the trees. People say you sometimes see wild elephants charging around and leopards. I feel good here, so I walk and walk before continuing on my way to Darjeeling. Why beeing in a hurry when it’s so beautiful around?
Almost the beginning of the new school year ! In Kurseong (India), these schoolboys jump on the Toy Train’s bandwagon and hold on the outside, not because the train is packed, but simply because it’s actually more fun doing the journey with the head in the breeze.
They laugh, say hello to the people they know when the train crosses a village: a pleasant way to get to school.
In Japan, people sometimes eat green tea leaves. In that case, it’s usually exceptional teas whose leaves have been previously used to prepare tea.
You can see how it is prepaped on the picture: after dropping the wet tea leaves into a container, you add skipjack chips and sprinkle a little bit of soy sauce over the top. It gives you a small tea leaves salad that’s absolutely delicious.
Here, in Asahina (Shizuoka prefecture, Japan), the tea used is a great “Kabuse Cha” or “shade tea” manufactured by Mister Maeshima Tohei, one of the most well-known farmers of the area.
If you ever go to Xishuangbanna (I wish you to because this region of southern Yunnan (China), watered by the Mekong, offers landscapes of great beauty), you might see these mats set on the ground, on which tea is dried.
This is the first step in the making of the famous Pu Er, both considered great for some, terrifying for others, because of its strong smell. Here however, it’s only the first stage of production: the leaves wither in the sun for 24 hours, giving off a delicious perfume. It’s only later, when the same leaves will ferment 45 days that their smell will change considerably. I’ll talk to you again later about it. Meanwhile, enjoy this Xishuangbanna I love, this Celestial Garden as they sometimes call it, with its mountains covered by jungle, its breathtaking gorges. It is both wild and calm. In this part of China, we can really breathe.
When the village of Hadong (South Korea) holds its Tea Festival each year, the organizers don’t do things by halves. People come from far away to stroll along the aisles where each producer offers you to taste their tea. The whole village is embellished for the occasion and there isn’t a single roundabout or lamp post that isn’t decorated with sophisticated structures made from camellia leaves. Even the public toilets provided for the many visitors on that day are beautifully decorated with terraced tea gardens and flooded with evening light tumbling down towards the sea. I was so stunned by the use made of this dream-like landscape that I didn’t even see anything. It’s only when looking back at the picture a few days later that I noticed the hand of a joker coming out from the landscape, making the victory sign V.
I mustn’t deceive you about the character of the tea plant. Don’t think that just because this shrub is kept close to the ground through successive pruning and harvesting that it is weedy or fragile in any way. The tea plant is nothing of the sort – on the contrary. Because it is constantly frustrated in its growth, the trunk of each shrub becomes incredibly thick. It is wide, knotted, twisted; in fact, a tea plantation looks rather like a forest of bonsais.
In the middle of summer, a bit of freshness is always welcome. Like this refreshing mist coming from the foothills of the Himalayas. People there are so used to living in the clouds that this humidity is part of their life and no-one pays any attention to it. It’s actually not unpleasant, just look at the faces of these tea pluckers and you’ll see that no-one seems depressed by it. They look like they’re having fun, in fact.
This is at Badamtam, a magnificent plantation located in the north of Darjeeling, across from Sikkim.
Just a detail: do you see the umbrella in the basket? Well, it is actually used when the sun comes out, to provide shade and keep a nice complexion.
Plucking tea, practically leaf by leaf, is a major undertaking. In some countries, pickers carry baskets on their backs to hold the leaves. These baskets have an open weave to allow the air to circulate inside and prevent the leaves from fermenting, which would spoil the pickers’ hard work.
There are several clues to the fact that I took this photo in Nepal: the man’s attire, particularly his hat, which is the kind worn by many Nepalese; the house with its ochre finish halfway up the mud walls, and the white sections picked out by the darker lines; lastly, for those who’ve spent time on the tea plantations, the shape of the basket itself, which becomes square as it widens at the top, and exists only in this region.
This scene took place near Phidim, in the far north of Ilam Valley, in the easternmost part of Nepal (Kanchenjunga Tea Estate is nearby; the Nepal Green Tea Factory and the Himalayan Shangri-La Tea Factory are a little further away).
Nepal remains a largely rural country. Here, two hours’ walk from the nearest village, people obviously need to do everything for themselves. They weave in front of their homes, without becoming distracted by the stranger taking photos of them.
When you taste tea, you first start by smelling it. This is a very important stage in the tasting process. You look at the infused leaves, inhale them and by doing so you already get lots of information on the tea. You could for example easily detect problems such as an over-drying, an overly long oxidization process if it’s black tea, or inappropriate fermentation. But of course it also allows you to identify the qualities of the tea and the different scents you could find again in the cup in more or less similar ways.
It’s only after smelling the infused leaves (what is called “infusion” in the trade) that we actually taste the liquor itself.
Here, in Badamtam (Darjeeling), Binod Gurung has his eyes closed. His nose is plunged in the damp, warm leaves. He inhales, analyses, all in a state of complete concentration.