I find it very rewarding to tell you about the men and women who make the teas you drink. Today, I’d like to introduce you to Saran RAI. Based in Arya Tara (Nepal), Saran produces different grades of tea, but just 300 kg a year. He uses my favourite cultivar: AV2. It is a very small, very high-quality plantation. Half of the fresh leaves that make his teas come from his own fields, and half come from the 50 or so local farmers. When I ask what he is most proud of, Saran replies: “being visited by people from afar”. It is true: he receives very few visitors. The route is arduous, especially the last few kilometers. I walked them, on an almost impassable track, surrounded by beautiful countryside. Although his plantation is not certified organic, I have no doubt that Saran uses organic methods.
On the island of Kyushu in Japan, it isn’t unusual to find a volcano in your field of vision. As someone who enjoys photography, this makes me very happy. The outline of these lava giants emphasises the controlled horizontality of the tea plants. They disrupt a rather too orderly landscape. They also remind us that the duration of harvests, the duration of seasons, the duration of human life, quite simply, is infinitesimal. Here is Mount Kaimon, which has a silhouette similar to that of Mont Fuji.
In Nepal, factories often look quite makeshift, from the sheet roofing to the very basic structure. Teas are tasted outside, on trestles. This is a long way from Darjeeling, with its British colonial influence. But we shouldn’t judge by appearances. Inside these modest-looking buildings, the equipment is not only very good (small rolling machines from China or Taiwan, quality ovens, machines that delicately shape the leaves, etc.), but most of all, you find a unique expertise and creativity. The people are young and passionate – again, very different from the image of the established planter in Darjeeling. They live and breathe tea, and think of almost nothing else. Their sole objective is to make delicious teas, whatever the colour. The lack of a tea tradition in Nepal undoubtedly frees them up to explore new leaf shapes, new types of rolling, new approaches to production in general. “Handmade” Nepalese teas (as opposed to the crush, tear, curl teas and the big factories, which also exist in the Ilam region) have a bright future ahead of them.
The Darjeeling season is going to be a strange one. The really amazing teas are priced out of reach (30% to 50% higher than in previous years) to compensate, the planters say, for the losses they sustained during the 105 days of strikes last year. So far I’ve bought, on the best possible terms, the following: Mission Hill DJ4 SFTGFOP1 Clonal, Puttabong DJ14 SFTGFOP1 Clonal Exotic, Puttabong DJ12 SFTGFOP1 Clonal Queen, Orange Valley DJ5 SFTGFOP1 cultivar China, Balasun DJ6 SFTGFOP1 Himalayan Mystic, and Rohini DJ15 FTGFOP1 Exotic White, all exclusive. They’re of a remarkable quality and will delight enthusiasts. For those wanting first-flush Darjeelings at lower prices, you’ll have to wait. Firstly, the only teas that are cheap are very poor quality, and secondly, even the mediocre teas are priced high, or very high. They’re absolutely not worth it. To sum up, this year requires more vigilance than usual.
For fans of Himalayan teas who aren’t focused on Darjeeling, and who are looking for good deals, why not wait for the Nepalese teas? They’ll be ready soon and often represent excellent value for money.