When you know what the climate is like here in Assam, you realise this woman must be brave to work outside. Throughout my stay in the Jorhat region, the temperature varied between 35° and 38°C, while the humidity came close to 100%.
Whatever the temperature, she rarely removes her wide-brimmed hat: it protects her from the powerful rays of the sun and also from the frequent and torrential downpours that can come at a moment’s notice.
Preparing tea requires a certain amount of precision when it comes to professional tasting. If you are preparing to taste and compare a number of teas, it is essential that the infusion takes place in exactly the same conditions for them all.
So everything is done with attention: the water must be at the correct temperature, the recipients must be clean and of the same colour. The exact same quantity of leaves is placed into each pot, to the nearest tenth of a gram. Then the infusion can begin – timed, of course.
The tea plant enjoys humidity, but it hates having water sitting around its roots. How awkward! To keep its feet dry when the ground is flat, like here in Assam, drains are dug into the soil.
Switching locations from the plains to the peaks, I want to tell you about the mountain blocking my view right now. It marks the start of Nagaland, the sparsely populated region that borders Assam. The Nagas are a friendly people, but due to one of their ancient customs, thankfully now abandoned, they are sometimes known as “Head Cutters”.
Among the enemies of the tea plant, the inchworm features in prime position. With a ferocious appetite, it can munch its way through quite a few leaves in a short space of time. Getting rid of them isn’t easy, especially on organic plantations. Birds are the principle predators of this creature, whose name derives from its strange gait: it advances by taking calculated “steps”, measuring out each one with apparent expertise.
One day, when I was in Darjeeling, I was surprised to find that a plot on the North Tukvar plantation had been named after me. It was a new plot, mainly planted with the AV2 cultivar which I am particularly fond of.
This gesture from G. Somani, superintendant of North Tukvar and Puttabong, touched me greatly, and from time to time I return to “Delmas Bari”. The tea plants have grown, they look magnificent at the moment. The place has a unique charm about it. A small stand provides shade where you can enjoy a cup of tea and take in the incredible beauty and utter tranquillity of the surroundings. I feel quite at home there!
Every time I go to China, I wonder what else will have changed in the cities and countryside that I know. The rapidity of change in the country takes your breath away, as you gaze upon a street you no longer recognise, or a forest of skyscrapers that in less than a year has grown faster than a copse of bamboo.
But off the beaten track, there are still hamlets that have kept their soul. Here, in Zhaji (Anhui province), nothing has changed for a very long time, and every evening after his meal, Mr Li walks beside the river before returning home for a last cup of the famous tea he produces.
Assam tea plantations are unusual in that they produce “orthodox” tea, processed according to the traditional method, but they also produce “CTC” tea, which stands for “cut, turn, curl”. CTC tea has none of the qualities of a fine tea. It is produced by machines, which I have photographed for you. This tea doesn’t interest me much, and for good reason: one of its uses in the tea bag industry is to bring colour quickly to the cup and express strength.
Nonetheless, the process of making CTC tea is interesting: as it passes through the various machines, the leaf gradually gets smaller and smaller until it is just a tiny round ball.
The yield per hectare here in Assam is four times higher than in Darjeeling, and totals two tonnes a year. Each tea plant produces such a quantity of leaves that between March and November, the shoots on each bush are plucked at least once a week. A record! Yet this charming tea plucker on the Dufflating Tea Estate does not seem overwhelmed by the scale of the task; in fact she looks quite happy.
Hou Chun, the Village of the Monkeys, is worth the trip. Having taken a boat to get to this mountainous region that is inaccessible by land, I have to climb this path which looks innocent enough to start with, but later runs along the edges of precipices. If you suffer from vertigo you must raise your eyes and gaze upon these magnificent mountains covered in tea plants and a jungle that mainly comprises bamboos.
In Hou Chun, just once a year, for around 25 days, they produce the best quality Taiping Hou Kui.