In Assam, anything related to tea processing takes place on a massive scale, because of the incredible yield they get here: four times higher than in Darjeeling. The plantations themselves cover a much larger area than elsewhere in the country.
Take the withering, for example. Instead of troughs 10 to 15 metres wide, which I am used to seeing in other parts of India, here the leaves are spread out as far as the eye can see. I took this photo at night, and the dim light adds to the mystery of this essential stage in tea processing. During the withering, the leaf will lose much of its water content (up to 40% for Assams; up to 70% for Darjeelings).
When you taste tea, the first thing you do is look at the dry tea leaf, of course. Then you bring the liquor to your lips and analyse the flavours, aromas and texture. But assessing the qualities of a tea includes another important step: smelling the wet leaves that have just been infused. For this, we can follow the example of Peter Orchard, manager of Kuwapani Tea Estate, who you see here, plunging his nose into the leaves while they’re still warm. Peter is looking at me but he is elsewhere, concentrating intently on the smell of the infusion, a smell which says a great deal about the quality of the lot he has just tasted.
In many countries, the men and women who pluck tea leaves wear a type of sleeve made from a light canvas, which covers part of the arm.
Camellia is quite a tough shrub, and at the end of the day, without this protection, which can be worn directly on bare skin or over the top of a garment, the pluckers’ arms would be covered in scratches.
I expect this young woman from Yunnan, who looks rather stylish beneath her straw hat, would agree.
The summer is upon us in France, and with it comes the heat. Many people like iced tea at this time of year, simply because they want a refreshing drink. But it’s funny that in regions where it is very hot – like the Sahara, but there are many other examples – people tend to drink their tea hot. In fact, hot tea is considered more refreshing than cold tea. This is because the closer the liquid’s temperature is to body temperature, the less it will provoke a temperature change. And this temperature change is one of the reasons we sweat.
Our love of iced drinks comes from the other side of the Atlantic, and when a food-related fashion arrives from that region, we are not necessary wrong to question it. My suggestion for fans of iced tea is to shun the overly sweetened – in my opinion – commercial varieties and instead to make your own delicious teas using water at room temperature, and to drink them chilled.
Or, as I am here to tell you about the different customs relating to tea, you can also celebrate the arrival of the warm season by drinking a hot tea with mint leaves, like this one, served on the banks of the river Nile.
I am very aware of how lucky I am to be able to spend several months a year walking through tea fields. I never tire of it. Each tea plantation looks different. Some slope, others are flat, some are densely planted, others sparsely. Some are wooded, but the trees vary from one region to another.
What I like about this photo taken on Kuwapani Tea Estate (Nepal) is the contrast in these tea trees planted in rows that are quite orderly, yet which leave room for some interesting effects. The wavy lines follow the irregularities of the terrain, with a certain sense of freedom. They have adapted to their environment. We can see how the hand of man has marked out a neat line, and nature, rebellious, has ignored it.
Here, in the south of Sri Lanka, in the “low grown teas” region, the sun is very intense, and it is best to protect the tea plants from its rays for at least a few hours a day.
Curiously, palm trees are used here to provide shade, despite being a rarity. As the palm trees themselves are cultivated, this enables the farmer who owns this lovely lakeside plot to harvest two different products on the same land, and both plants benefit.
Last week, in the company of Dilan Wijeyesekera and Vidusha Wakista, I tasted teas from the regions of Dimbula, Uva and Nuwara Eliya, side by side.
Dilan and Vidusha work for the company Mabroc and supply some of our teas from Sri Lanka, which come either from their own plantations or the Colombo auctions.
We also discussed “low growns”, teas from the south of the country that grow at a low altitude, and which have steadily improved in quality over the years. Most low tea plantations don’t use the rotorvane, a machine widely used on high grown plantations, which handles the leaves more roughly than the orthodox procedure.
I am writing this in Colombo, in the room where the weekly tea auctions are held. In fact there are many auction rooms like the one I’m sitting in now, where different grades are sold.
The three people you see on the platform are brokers. In the days preceding the auction they will have received hundreds of samples from the tea plantations. They print a catalogue listing all the lots of tea available, which they send to the exporters, and today they are selling the teas.
The men sitting in this room – strangely there are no women – are exporters. They are officially recognised as such, and are almost the only people with the right to export tea from Sri Lanka.
What amuses me about this photo is that everyone seems so calm, whereas in reality the place is buzzing with activity. The man in the centre of the platform is announcing the lots to be sold and is speaking at an incredible rate. A few seconds later he brings the hammer down and moves on to the next sale. He spots a man raising an eyebrow, which means he is bidding higher, or another lifting a finger, and when nobody else moves, it means the deal is done.
The little Darjeeling train sometimes takes a break. Near Ghoom, at the Batasia loop, there is a special stop which the tourists enjoy.
It is a spectacular configuration, where the track turns back on itself, climbing at the same time, before the train crosses a bridge right above the track it was on just a few minutes earlier.
In this photo the train has just completed the loop and is passing in front of some pretty and very neatly trimmed trees, a sign of the locals’ pride in their Toy Train.