Once a year, I ask some of the senior staff at Le Palais des Thés who have not yet been on a trip with me to pack their bags and accompany me into the tea mountains. There is nothing like a visit to the plantations to compare your theoretical knowledge with reality, and bring a fresh impetus to your learning.
So, in October 2011, here we are: Sarah Daubron (head of customer services), myself, Christine Delétrée (network director) and Paul Roudez (manager of the Rue de l’Annonciation), posing for a group photo by the Tumsong factory in Darjeeling (India).
A few days ago I was shocked to hear of the brutal death of Seewan. Seewan was my driver for nearly 10 years. Every time I went to Darjeeling he would be there, waiting for me at Bagdogra airport, to take me into the mountains. He was extremely kind and never complained about anything. He was always cheerful, whatever the situation. He knew every area I visited, every tea plantation, every road. Seewan had become a good friend, and his murder has stunned and saddened me a great deal.
It’s just a detail, but something has intrigued me for years in Darjeeling. Why do people returning from market carry their shopping on their knees, with the notable exception of the cartons of eggs, which the community taxi driver places without hesitation on the bonnet of his Jeep?
When you know how bumpy the roads are in this region, and the hours of driving required just to get from one village to the next, it makes you wonder where they get the crazy idea of risking their fresh eggs in this way.
So I decided to investigate the matter, and I questioned several people while they were placing the cartons on the bonnet. I asked them why they transported their eggs like that. And each time I got the same answer, accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders, as if I had asked the most ridiculous question in the world.
-It’s where they are safest.
It’s true that when you get more than 20 people in a 4×4, a fragile item is more likely to get crushed inside the vehicle. And it’s true that there is so much weight thrown around at the rear of the vehicle that the most delicate items are best placed in front.
When it is time to take a break, the pluckers in Darjeeling gather in the shade to drink tea or eat their meals. We would all love to be able to have lunch every day in such a peaceful setting…
These shelters are also where the pluckers take the leaves to be collected and weighed. Once gathered together, the leaves are loaded onto a trailer and a tractor promptly tows them away to the factory for processing.
On Sundays, many people gather in Darjeeling’s main square. Sometimes political meetings are held there. At other times, entertainment draws the crowds. Today, just off the famous square, called Chowrasta, I met this dancer who was getting ready to go on stage along with her fellow dancers, adorned with the same jewellery.
I’m on my way to Darjeeling. On my journey, I sometimes stop at Longview Tea Estate, the first tea plantation in this appellation. It doesn’t always produce great teas, as not all of its various plots get enough sun, but at certain times of the year, on the highest part of the plantation, Longview produces some very good teas, earlier than other gardens. Here, under the watchful eye of the grower, I’m assessing the aromas of the different lots I’m going to taste.
In China as well as in India, when it comes to making high quality tea, no effort is spared in ensuring that only the best leaves are selected. Here, in Fuding (China), these workers are checking all the leaves of the Bai Mu Dan that has just been produced, one by one. It is a painstaking task that requires a great deal of patience. Only when this stage is finished can the leaves be packed into chests and shipped to the buyer.
In the past, the withering of tea leaves took place in the open air, but nowadays it increasingly happens in a heated, well ventilated room. This system offers greater control over the ambient conditions. Here, in Fujian (China), the temperature and humidity levels are carefully regulated, and the room benefits from a sophisticated ventilation system. Which means the leaves of this Bai Mu Dan can gradually lose their water content.