Tea has been consumed in China for more than 3,000 years, and it is only in this country that we find such a rich variety. It produces all colours of tea: white, green, blue-green, yellow, black and dark. In China we find a unique culture of terroir: one village might have been following a very specific tradition of tea shaping for centuries, while in the next village the leaves could be processed in a completely different way. Nowhere else in the world do we find such a variety of practices. This photo shows my 2017 selection of “new-season” Chinese green teas, some of which were harvested before the Qingming festival. From left to right: Pre Qing Ming Bi Luo Chun, Pre Qing Ming Long Jing, Pre Qing Ming Bourgeons de Jade, Pre Qing Ming Lu An Gua Pian, Pre Qing Ming Anji Bai Cha, Bai Mao Hou, Mao Feng Premium, Yong Xi Huo Qing, Huang Shan Mao Feng. It goes without saying that just as the size, shape and colour of the leaves differ so much, the tasting experience is equally varied among these premium teas.
Ecology is rarely a priority for politicians, but why should we expect them to do everything? Why complain that the environment does not play a big enough role in political debate or manifestos, and wait passively for things to change at the next elections? We expect politicians to do everything. What if we took matters into our own hands? In terms of the environment, our power is not limited to ticking a box on a ballot paper. Our purse, for example, represents a lot of power. If we don’t want a plastic bag, we can refuse one. If we don’t want a whole heap of packaging, we can refuse it. If we don’t want animal cruelty, we can start by eating less meat. Eat it a bit less often, and choose meat from animals that have enjoyed a healthy life, out of doors, raised by good farmers who care for their welfare. Or fish caught by conscientious fisherman, and not by trawlers that scoop up everything in their path and decimate the seas. We can buy fresh, seasonal produce; we can buy local whenever possible. We can buy from the producers themselves rather than from supermarkets. Each one of us has the power to help limit the often disastrous consequences of the food industry, which produces on such a large scale. We can avoid ready meals. We can stop buying pointless chemical products: people criticise farmer’ practices when they cover their own gardens with weed killers and fertilisers. We can recycle, we can reduce our consumption. We can compost, we can grow our own food. We can think as a community. We can help each other, give to others. We can upcycle, we can cycle. We can cook, we can keep animals. We can walk.
Indian tea producers are complaining about unfair competition from Nepal, and I don’t buy their argument. They don’t complain that Japan, China and other countries produce tea, they have to deal with it. But with Nepal, India is behaving as if it could put pressure on this country, which has no access to the sea, to impose conditions, make it pay taxes, and in this way prevent it from exporting its tea. Nepal is a particularly poor country which buys most of its consumer goods from India, and is therefore dependant on India to a certain extent. India is using this to its advantage. Among the complaints levelled by Indian producers, particularly those in Darjeeling, is that Nepalese teas create unfair competition for Darjeelings. But to my mind, Nepalese teas have their own character, they are recognisable, they don’t need the prestige of Darjeeling to enjoy success. They offer excellent value for money, much better than Darjeelings, and it is most likely this which is irritating India most. Lastly, and this is a positive thing, Nepal is starting to build a good reputation for itself in tea. This is a great improvement on the dodgy dealings that have been going on for years with certain unscrupulous Darjeeling gardens, who bring in fresh tea leaves from Nepal at low prices, process them in India, and then pass them off as pure Darjeelings!
The preparation for a tasting is a special moment. I watch what my host is doing, each precise movement. The leaves are presented on a base that allows you to see them, then the tea is weighed out to the nearest tenth of a gram, before being steeped for a specific time. Each tea must be brewed in exactly the same conditions. Before tasting the tea, while the liquors cool a little, I like to take a few photos of the room itself, of people going about their activities, their faces, or the landscape. I often make use of windows. The reflections can be unexpected. I take photos through the window, while others look on, puzzled. Here, at the Kanchenjunga Tea Estate, through the grille-covered window, you can see the tea being prepared against a background of mountains and the tea garden.
I met Rana Bahadurdiyali a few days ago in Ilam valley, in Nepal. Twenty-four years ago, Rana founded the co-operative Teenjure, which today has no less than 234 farmers who combine their tea production. This year, Teenjure has started to produce some very good, interesting and varied teas. When I asked Rana what he wanted me to write about him, he told me how hard everyone had worked, how challenging it was for the whole community of Teenjure to start growing tea – clearing the land, planting the tea plants, building the factory and installing the equipment. Twenty-four years ago, when they began this project, they had no water, no road, no electricity. It took them two years to build the factory, Rana, aged 82, tells me, smiling.