Wherever it comes from, a premium tea involves rigorous work. This starts with the harvest, which must be done meticulously, and of course continues throughout each stage in the processing. Here, in Anhui (China), they are harvesting Huang Shan Mao Feng – “Downy Tips of the Yellow Mountains”. We can see the care being taken with the plucking as well as when transporting the leaves, which are shaded from the sun but still have air circulating through them. The baskets are small to prevent any compression of the precious shoots
In Kenya, some plantations lie at almost 2,000 metres. At this altitude, insects and fungi that can attack tea plants are particularly rare, due to the low temperatures. So in these conditions, it’s easier to grow teas organically. However, to be certified “organic”, as well as not using prohibited pesticides and fungicides, the soil must be enriched naturally – with compost, for example.
There’s something no planter will ever stop me from doing, and that’s walking – setting out on foot for at least one or two hours, every day. I love it. Alone or in company, either way, I love to walk; I love meeting people, observing the changing light and weather, the beauty of blossom, the colour of cloth. I like to sit down on a doorstep and exchange smiles with people I know nothing about but with whom I share a connection, because we live on the same planet, of course, and also because tea probably plays a part in their lives too. You can learn a lot by walking: about the way people live, the methods they use to grow tea, the weather, the geography, and then all those colours and smells. Of course there are strange creatures too, sometimes snakes that are completely unknown, weird insects, things that jump. But I feel good. I sit on the edge of a rock when I want to admire something, when it’s beautiful, and simply because it’s good to take one’s time, to ask oneself what our purpose is on our small planet, to ponder the meaning of life. Tea makes you slow down. And tea also teaches you to be still, to learn to breathe, literally and figuratively; it teaches you to stop being so restless, running around from morning to night without really knowing why.
Here, three hours north of Kigali, on the little paths that wind through the mountains, there’s a lovely way to say “hello”. When you meet someone else, they greet you by raising their arms as if you’re a long-lost friend, with a joyful “Amakuru!” And this hello means “What’s the news?”
Sometimes I’m asked to taste some very good teas, before being served others that don’t interest me at all – broken-leaf teas, for example. I taste them unenthusiastically and move on as quickly as possible. If the light is good and the place interesting, I like to play around with my camera while my host finishes the tasting. I experiment with the settings on my EOS5D as a way of commenting on the quality of teas in front of me. I distort the teas I don’t like – I overexpose them, as I’ve done here. I subvert reality, I frame the shots differently; I’m not interested in these overly black liquors, these broken leaves that develop a dreadful astringency and are devoid of any subtlety. I prefer to create something interesting with my toy, while my puzzled host looks on – he’d rather I got on with tasting and took fewer photos.