Walking through the streets of Hong Kong is an olfactory journey. In this city where street food is sold on every corner, the many stalls – there’s one every ten metres or so – give off copious, diverse and unusual smells: duck skin crackling over the heat, sizzling lumps of fat, garlicky vegetables frying in the wok, caramelised pork. There are fried noodles, fritters and dim sum of all kinds.
With all the greasy smoke, the stalls overflowing with delicious food, it’s a real wake-up for the senses. Whatever the time of day or night, it makes you want to dig into a big bowl of steaming noodles.
Nowhere as much as here, in Hong Kong, in this city that never stops and that dazzles with a thousand neon lights, have I ever had such a strong sense that man was put on this earth to eat.
Luckily, there are also tea houses where you can take a seat and follow the owner’s advice, and taste with him a few leaves of Pu Er, delicately broken off an old tea cake. Then you can take time to savour your tea, and think about this island and its hyperactive inhabitants who consume with such frenzy.
Everything comes to an end. When a tea plant no longer produces many leaves, it is replaced. The lifespan of a tea plant is quite variable, generally between 30 and 50 years, although China claims to have some that are a thousand years old.
The trunk and roots of the tea plant burn well, and heat the oven in which the tea leaves are dried after oxidisation, for example.
So here we are in the Year of the Dragon. Symbol of the Emperor, symbol of power, the Dragon is a highly desirable zodiac sign.
May this year unfold under favourable auspices, may it bring you prosperity beyond your dreams, the red signs say. It’s a tradition in China to hang long banners on the doors at the time of the new year, with messages of good wishes.
When the British were in charge of tea production they created vast estates and put in place systems to manufacture large quantities of tea. On each estate they built a bungalow, which might be small or large, for the planter. Today, in India and Sri Lanka, for example, you still see these buildings that are typical of the British era. I am often invited by planters to stay in their bungalows, like this one in Amgoorie (India), which is generally considered to be one of the finest.
When you’re feeling cold, what could be better than going home, putting the kettle on and warming your fingers a few minutes later around a cup of steaming tea?
Under a beautiful winter sun, here I am sipping boiling hot tea overlooking the High Atlas mountains.
You don’t need panda excrement to launch into organic tea production. In my last post I mentioned these loveable mammals in the light of the highly-publicised start-up by a Chinese entrepreneur. But vermiculture, on the other hand, has been around for a long time and is used on many tea plantations. So what is it? Quite simply, it involves raising earthworms by feeding them on a mixture of cow dung and chopped-up leaves (see photo). A few weeks later, the earthworm castings are collected and spread onto the soil. The use of this rich compost eliminates the need for fertilisers. In addition, the compost contains worm eggs, which then hatch into worms themselves. Once they have grown into adult worms, they will help aerate the soil and aid irrigation. As well as burrowing tunnels, the worms feed on leaves that have fallen to the ground, and speed up their decomposition.
So earthworms are a great asset, providing ongoing benefits for the soil.
There are many organic tea plantations around the world, like here in southern India. So far, there are relatively few in China, but a publicity-seeking Chinese entrepreneur has just announced with great fanfare in the press that he has acquired no less than 11 tonnes of panda poo to make the most expensive tea in the world. Wow! Over the weekend, the news was relayed around the world by all the major press agencies. When the story reached Philippe Bouvard, master of French humour, he called me to ask if I’d appear on his show “Les Grosses Têtes” (“Big Heads”).
As for me, I consider it perfectly normal to use animal manure to grow tea. I have visited many plantations that use vermiculture, or worm composting, a technique I want to cover in my next post.
Organic farming methods don’t allow the use of chemical fertilisers, and I have no issues with that at all. However, if this Chinese entrepreneur really wants to sell the most expensive tea in the world, he’ll need a bit more than these 11 tonnes of manure. He’ll need to acquire the expertise. It won’t make the headlines, and it will take a lot longer.
You can’t serve a slice of Pu Erh “cake” on a plate. Nonetheless, this tea is traditionally consumed on feast days in China.
The Pu Erh cake used to be known as a Tribute tea and would be offered as a gift to the Court, in honour of the Chinese Emperor. It is a tea with a long and venerable past.
Over time, as its leaves are picked and its growth hindered, the tea plant becomes stronger. Its trunk thickens and new branches appear, while the bush is maintained at a height of about a metre. The plants mesh together to form what is known as the “plucking table”, comprising branches so dense that you can lie down on them with no difficulty at all.
I don’t need to tell you, who are kind enough to accompany in my peregrinations throughout the year, how one can find a sense of serenity by taking time out every day to savour tea. But perhaps you didn’t know that you can find wellbeing with tea in a different way, by diving into the tea plants and taking a nap on their branches.
Tea is not just a drink, it’s a whole way of life. It is what makes me feel good. For 2012, I hope we can all find in tea the feeling of relaxation and serenity that we need. Together, let’s enjoy tea!