The city of Suzhou is full of character. Many Chinese tourists come here to find some old-world charm. In the historic part of the city, canals run alongside the narrow streets, and many newly wed Chinese couples come here to make pictures. In fact you cannot walk more than a few paces before coming across a pair of young newlyweds posing under the watchful eye of the professional photographers, who are eager to capture their models in the right pose. This pretty bride exudes happiness as she smiles for the cameras.
Twenty-five years ago I created Le Palais des Thés to turn my passion into a job, and to share with other enthusiasts the pleasures of tasting the world’s best teas. Since she was little, my niece Aurélie has always seen me with a cup of tea in my hand and has listened to my stories of distant travels to the plantations of China and Japan. A year ago, Aurélie, who has grown up to be a great connoisseur of tea herself, decided to start an exciting new venture and a fantastic challenge. Accompanied by Cy, her husband, she has decided to move to the United States and write a new chapter in this family story, by launching Le Palais des Thés in North America.
I am hugely proud of my niece and I know she will succeed – I have seen how passionate she and her husband are. They have a pioneering spirit.
Bi Luo Chun is one of the rarest and most prestigious China teas. Here, my friend Waterqian – one of the few farmers to produce the highest quality Bi Luo Chun – is showing me how much must be taken off the stem during the harvest: a small bud with just one leaf. This type of plucking is extremely rare. It explains the very high price of this tea, whose name means “Spiral of Spring Jade”. In one day, each worker only harvests around two kilos of fresh leaves which, after processing, will produce just two hundred grams of tea.
Every year, in mid-April, my attention turns to China. This is the time when production starts of the magnificent China green teas such as Long Jing, Bi Luo Chun and Bai Mao Hou. Right now I’m not far from Suzhou, on the shores of Lake Taihu.
Every day I do my best to sleep in the middle of the tea fields. And this is the kind of view I get when I wake up.
Tea has a number of enemies, and among them is the hairy caterpillar. This one may look rather shy, but don’t be fooled. This delicate creature is less timid when it comes to munching through the bottom of a young tea plant, a task it performs so thoroughly that it cuts right through the base of the main stem. And the poor plant ends up flat on the ground, dead.
Carine Baudry, head of the Tea School, has just returned from Darjeeling. The trip was organised by the school to allow some of the students to visit the plantations and gain a first-hand understanding of how tea is made. Carine and her eight students stayed in the beautiful surroundings of a tea garden and observed every stage in the production process. They met several planters and were able to ask plenty of questions. They also visited Delmas Bari and admired the breathtaking landscapes of this Himalayan region. And there were plenty of opportunities to meet the smiling tea pluckers, like the two women pictured here.
The day before yesterday Darjeeling was hit by a hailstorm, which was not good for the tea plants. What with the late start to the season due to the lack of rain, and the violent weather attacking the tea leaves, the planters don’t know which saint to turn to.
They’ve had enough of these insults from the skies. And they don’t want to see any more tea plants battered in the space of a day.
Now that the Darjeeling First Flush season is well underway, today I’d like to introduce you to my favourite tea plant in this region. Its name is AV2, short for “Ambari Vegetative 2”. Despite its slightly spindly appearance, this cultivar produces the best teas.
I’ve just bought a single lot, Puttabong DJ7 “Clonal Queen”. Its producer reserves this prestigious name for lots plucked exclusively from AV2 plants. So this is not a blend. It has remarkable delicate aromatic notes that are both vegetal and floral.