Tea has a very good character. It gets on well with many plants. Here, high up in Taichung (Taiwan), it has a close relationship with Areca catechu. This palm provides the farmer with a supplementary income and our bushes with a little shade. It also lends an impressive verticality to these tea gardens, which are usually very horizontal.
In the centre of the island of Taiwan they produce Gao Shan Chas, high-altitude teas that are rolled into pearls. They are semi-oxidised teas that are withered, then lightly oxidised, roasted, rolled, dried and packaged. In the cup, the best of them develop fresh vegetal notes and a lovely opulent flowery bouquet (rose, hyacinth, jasmine), sustained by buttery, milky notes with an occasional hint of vanilla. These high-quality teas are produced in limited quantities.
After a tiring day of walking for more than six hours to reach the old tea plants and then returning to the village, I needed to recover. The food in this region of northern Vietnam is delicious. With the Dao people who were hosting me, I followed tradition: throughout the meal, I toasted many times with the people who raised their glass to me. Each time I had to down my drink in one, and shake hands with them. Between slugs of the local rice alcohol, I took time to appreciate every tasty dish. The meals were prepared in the room where we sat to eat, on the ground. As soon as the meal was over we lay down on mats, in the same room, with nothing to separate us apart from a mosquito net between each person, not even from the jungle outside, with all its noises that interrupted my sleep. I could hear noises from the other mats: a mother breastfeeding her baby, someone else snoring loudly, another person coughing, and other various sighs and mutterings. By the time the cock crowed I’d been awake for some time, and I went outside to walk, to watch the day break from the edge of a rice field above the village. When I returned for breakfast and sat down, I was surprised to see the master of the house offer me more rice alcohol, and enthusiastically raise his glass in my direction. I declined. I couldn’t believe it, I was dreaming of tea, but in vain; my host was serious. He grew gloomy at my protestations, and would have been offended if I’d continued. Travelling is all about adopting the traditions of the people who are kind enough to welcome us, so I swallowed my drink. Later, he offered me a well-deserved tea, a tea I’d rarely longed for so much.
It’s not easy to reach the wild tea plants growing on the border between China and Vietnam, especially in the hot season. The stifling, muggy air slows you down, and the leeches that infest the region take advantage and cling on. You walk beneath a high sun. The humidity in the air is palpable. But once you’re out of the jungle, after a good three hours of walking, you find yourself high up, among the famous tea plants that have been left to grow like trees. You can enjoy this beautiful sight, especially if you’re lucky enough to arrive as the leaves are being picked. (To be continued.)
In regions where tea is picked from plants growing in the wild, whether that’s in southern Yunnan (China), northern Laos or here, in Vietnam, the villages are mainly populated by ethnic minorities. There is a great diversity of these minorities. Each one has its own customs, and sometimes its own language. When you walk through the mountains in these regions, you get to experience this mosaic of cultures. This woman, who is busy picking tea leaves from the top of a tree, belongs to the Dao community. (To be continued.)