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When all trees have been cut down, when all animals have been hunted, when all waters are polluted, when all air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money. - Cree Prophecy

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tea- organic, hand made and hand rolled!

Tea is the largest consumed beverage on this planet, after water ofcourse! Tea is not just a beverage but more than that, as the Swiss would vouch for. There are so many versions of tea that a swiss would consume and sincerely believe it addresses most ailments. (ok, confession, I have believed it too and been a part of it;-))

Tea plants live for at least a 100 years and are hardly propagated naturally any more. BTW, it was a news for me to hear that tea is a tree and not a herb or shrub as one would imagine. This grows over 10 metres in to a big tree, if let free. . It could have come from China but there are so many million hectares covered by this..yes, a dreadful monoculture after all!
We not only abuse it with mono culture practice, but just don’t let it grow to its natural height either. There was a story that I heard which adds to the woes of agriculture, monoculture especially. In the Nilgiris from the time tea was propagated (earliest ones being brought in 1820), the lovely land of grassland and various trees was lost to all but one crop. Nilgiris’ bio diversity being the main sufferer. In effect the huge trees that mingled with the clouds above Nilgiris and helped condensation and hence rain, no more was the scene and so the lesser rains. The other fall out being soil. The grassland arrested the soil erosion and also helped in some water retention before it rolled down from the hills. whereas tea has led to water and soil depletion. And let us forget the ramification of chemicals – fertilizers, pesticides, weedicides, etc. for now that is.

So what was essentially a visit to look at tea, organic at that and especially hand made and hand rolled Organic tea in the Nilgiris, ended up in such ecological awareness.

Kothagiri is a beautiful place in the Nilgiris – away from touritsy ooty. Tea plants probably planted a century back is what is seen as far as the eye can see interspersed with Silver oaks to provide shade. Tea, as said before, is actually a tree (not a shrub) which is pruned regularly (once in four years or so) to make plucking easier and to maintain quality of the tea leaves.

Tea plants can be propagated by seeds or cuttings. Seeds are rare, hybrid saplings are the norm -a variety unimaginatively labeled B661 is what is prevalent.
This is what Nilgiris is full of! A clone from one particular farm is what found all over Nilgiris. The clone from one particular plant - the 61st shrub in the 6th row of a farm called Brooklands or such like!. want to talk of monoculture here? Hmm..

There is, like every where else, a big shortage of labour and tea which is such labour intensive faces it even more pronounced. So as a way of escaping the shortage, mainly thanks to NREGA and other industry/urban run, weedicides are used excessively. Since labour is a must for harvest (there is very minimal mechanization in harvest front ) weedicides are used to avoid labour employment in de-weeding. So Round up and cancer are increasing phenomenon here now.
Small and large farmers alike use weedicides to kill whatever else dares to grow between their precious tea shrubs and pesticides are also sprayed in abundance esp for the red spider “pests” which is prevalent. Ofcourse these red spiders are less in organic farms and easily controlled with bio-methods.
Essentially the teas are either China or Assam variety. Assam ones have broader leaves. Assam has more liquor (strength?) as they call it and grows in low lying areas too. World wide Darjeeling tea is rated the best. The altitude out there is just right it seems.
The tea leaves are harvested every 15 days- the top 2 leaves and the bud is what is harvested. When I tasted it, I found so much similarity to neem leaf. Seriously! On average a kilo of leaves fetches Rs11/-.
These green leaves then are withered, heated, rolled, then ready!
Green tea- is not withered but steamed or pan roasted and sold. This is supposedly more healthy with anti-oxidant property being the steal.
CTC is crush tear and Curled and Orthodox is the old process.
But what we get in market Blended! The last quality and blended will ofcourse be blended not with best for customer but best for business economics.

Now to Organic! SLOE is a 10 acre organic farm owned by our courteous hosts Ramesh babu and Susheela. There is a strong belief (myth?) that tea can be organic only in huge acreage and not in small holdings. To break this and to ensure many small planters can and should venture organic Ramesh Babu is trying to set an example- economical and ecological.
Theirs is a fantastic 10 acre land beautifully surrounded by reserve forest on 3 sides and a deep ravine on one end. So not even the run off from neighbouring lands add chemical unmindfully in to theirs. Their farm looks very different because it has a variety of trees and lots of plants (weeds?) grown and also has grass in-between. This grass was cited as a reason to reject subsidy for them by the Tea board! (oh! The ‘educated’ and ‘university specialists’ can only encourage ‘fast forward’ practices, not eco-friendly ones). BTW the subsidies for tea is a big story that has to be reserved for another post.

Before machines were invented for tea processing, tea was rolled by hand for centuries in China, Japan etc. At SLOE they hand roll their tea, and this is a very laborious, exacting and highly time consuming process. Tea rolled at body temperature gives the best quality, as opposed to machine rolled teas which generate high temperatures, due to the high volume of tea and the high speed of the machine. The high temperature interferes with the enzyme activity in the tea. Modern tea factories produce thousands of kilos of tea daily. Small organic ones can only make around One kilogram of handrolled tea daily.(Scaling up production of this product is not an easy affair, if QUALITY has to be maintained). One character of this tea, is that the Leaf regains its original shape and size, and greenish colour after steeping. Thus Organic hand rolled Tea is a speciality. And if you value quality, organic, traditional methods- consuming organic hand rolled is the way.
Once you taste organic tea you will realise that all this colour, fragrance, strength that are advertised by the industry,are all external characters (obviously more chemicals and unhealthy entrants)

Did you know adding MILK is a NO NO for Tea! The right way is to just pouring hot water in to tea leaves, then cover it and let it steep. In the process witness the leaves unfurl. From now on drink tea like Tea connoisseurs – without sugar or milk and prepared as said above.

Now where do you get it? For Organic hand rolled tea or hand made tea which is made without any mechanization but hand rolled and hand processed, go to restore. We at restore get them from SLOE, Kothagiri, from Ramesh babus organic farm all processed by manually by him and his wife.

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