Named “Meilleur Sommelier de France” (“Best Sommelier of France”), Manuel Peyrondet is also interested in tea. He came to taste some premium teas with me, prepared at room temperature, meaning they were steeped for exactly an hour in water at 20°C. We talked about tea and food pairings, accompanied by Vanessa Zochetti, who was interviewing us for the next issue of Bruits de Palais. Tasting tea with a sommelier, especially Manuel, who used to be a sommelier at the Hotel George V, as well as the head sommelier at Taillevent, then at the Royal-Monceau, is a unique experience. In the world of fine food and drink, we often live in our bubble, focusing on our specialist product: wine for Manuel, tea for me. It’s really strange to move outside this world, to focus on how we respond to different textures, aromas and flavours. It leads to particularly enriching discussions.
And for those who don’t just drink tea, Manuel runs a wine club, which is an excellent way to build up a collection and attend tastings: www.chaisdoeuvre.com
(photo: Emmanuel Fradin)
Plucking tea leaves by hand is labour-intensive, but manual harvesting is a mark of quality. Some research centres, like here in northern India, are working to optimise mechanisation. The bushes are pruned in a different way, and they are working to identify which type of mechanical cutting will result in the most abundant crops. I don’t have to tell you that I fear this future mechanisation, although uniquely in the case of Japan, it has already been the practice for a long time, and doesn’t affect the quality of the tea due to the great care taken by the farmers in that country.
(Photo : Laurence Jouanno)
It’s true that I spend a lot of time in the tea fields, but sometimes I visit the Palais des Thés stores and the teams. I tell them about my adventures, answer their questions, and we taste teas together. These are very important moments for me. The staff are always horrified when I tell them about the leeches that attach themselves to your skin during humid walks; about the whole hornets served fried, spiced and seasoned with ginger and garlic, near Xishuangbanna; about the local alcohol downed neat when you wake up, as is traditional among people living in the mountains of northern Vietnam. I also tell them about the nights I spend listening to the sounds of the jungle. My fear of tigers. I always remember one or two anecdotes, such as the monkey who stole a tourist’s bag and, while we looked on, dumbfounded, took out a passport and tore out every page, one by one. Here, I’m in Toulouse, with Océane, Marc, Léa and Florence, manager of the Toulouse and Blagnac stores, who spent a few days with me in India, on the tea plantations.
The current tension in Darjeeling, although it seems finally to be easing, has guided my path toward new vistas this month. In the foothills of the Dhauladhar Mountains, a stone’s throw from Kashmir, a few tea plantations are well worth the detour—not only for their majestic view of the Himalayas, but also for the hard work of several local producers, which is unquestionably paying off. For decades, the region produced a relatively ordinary green tea for local consumption, but more recently, if you look hard enough, you can find a wide variety of more artisanal teas to delight the palate. All while gazing at the Dhauladhars, naturally.