I’m writing from the Nirvana Garden Hotel in Kathmandu. In Buddhist culture, “nirvana” means a state of bliss. I find it in the country’s mountains when I drink sublime teas in a protected landscape, often made up of jungle and neat rows of tea plants. The harmony between the experience of tasting and the contemplation of nature fills me with happiness. Tomorrow, I’m leaving for the Ilam valley in the east of the country, to visit farmers I already know, and meet some new ones.
This Sunday, people were voting in Kathmandu. Here, on election days, to ensure the process is peaceful and democratic, all car traffic is banned and the sale of alcohol is suspended. Also, around the polling stations, there are signs reminding you that it is strictly forbidden to carry a gun in the vicinity.
A few weeks ago I came across a Jade Oolong from Thailand which I loved. It gives me the opportunity to tell you a bit about the village of Mae Salong in northern Thailand, and about its Chinese population and its unique and troubled history. During the 1950s, routed out by Mao Zedong, the nationalists of Kuomintang retreated to the island of Taiwan, apart from a few regiments based in Yunnan, who chose to organise their resistance from Burma (now Myanmar), aided by the CIA. Ten years later, tired of this threat on its border, China got Burma to chase out these regiments. Some soldiers decided to base themselves in Taiwan, others in Laos, and some in Mae Salong, just on the other side of the border, between Burma and Thailand. In the 1980s, Mae Salong’s Chinese people gave up the idea of returning to China one day, and following the eradication of poppy farming, switched to growing tea. Having brought their methods and expertise from Taiwan, as well the young plants, this is why we now find in the mountains of the Golden Triangle these delicious Oolongs, which have similarities with some Taiwanese Oolongs.
In Darjeeling and Nepal, you cannot trust the name of a garden blindly. Of course, plantations such as Turzum, Singbulli, Puttabong, Thurbo, Margaret’s Hope and Castleton have a much higher reputation than others. The same goes for Guranse and Shangri La in Nepal. But it is essential to understand that even the most prestigious gardens cannot produce high-quality teas all the time. At some point in the year they end up selling pretty nondescript ones. During the rainy season, for example, even an experienced planter cannot produce good tea, because the leaves grow too quickly and have no time to develop their essential oils. Also, each plantation has plots that are more or less well oriented, and planted with different cultivars. On Monday you might produce a sublime tea using leaves harvested from an excellent plot, and on Tuesday produce a very ordinary tea from a different part of the plantation. To sum up: yes, some gardens can make remarkable teas, but watch out, as they also produce mediocre ones. So you have to be very selective, and taste a vast amount of tea, to be able to recognise the best.