Chai for two and two for chai

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Asia » India » Tamil Nadu » Madurai
April 12th 2017
Published: April 16th 2017
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One thing India is rightly proud of is its reputation as one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, producer of tea in the world. As someone who thinks coffee is a heinous liquid fit only as the devil's brew I am pleased to find we are on the tea trail today.

But first things first - breakfast where I get my first taste of dosa. Dosa is a traditional Indian start to the day consisting of a large flat pancake folded in half, made from fermented rice and lentils, (some have fillings but mine is plain), this accompanied by three little pots containing a yoghurty type mixture in one, another with vegetable curry and the last a spicy hot orange coloured paste. The dosa is eaten by breaking off a piece of the 'pancake' and using this to pick up a dollop from one of the side dishes. No cutlery required. Scrummy but really odd to be eating spicy food in the morning for brekkie.

Today we are moving cross state from Kerala to its neighbour Tamil Nadu and there is a toll to pay at the border with differing costs depending on the type of vehicle you are travelling in. Once we're through it's not long before we are surrounded by the Wentworth Estate tea plantations, their waist high tea bushes hugging the hillsides as far as the eye can see. There are a few silver rock trees dotted sparsely among the tea plants to provide a little shade but not as much as is needed for the pathetic weedy coffee bushes that can't cope with the heat of the Indian summer and need factor 50 sunscreen. The silver rock trees are also used to grow pepper plants that wind up the trunks.

We stop off at one of the tea plantations to have a closer look at how the tea bushes are grown. We learn that 90% of the tea plantations are owned by big companies with the remaining 10% owned privately but managed as cooperatives. The bushes are planted in rows that follow the contours of the hillside. Plants are kept waist high to make it easier for the pickers. If left to grow the plant could reach three metres. Picking is done for 10 months of the year with new leaves taking from 6 to 30 days to form depending on how much rain they're getting. Tea picking during these ten months is pretty much constant and is hard work, the pickers being in full sun in the scorching temperatures with very little shade. They are paid per kilo of leaves picked, one large sack load, and in addition they have their housing provided, groceries, medicines, health care and children's education. Cutting is done by hand by the best pickers and this provides the best quality tea. It can also be cut using a kind of shears contraption with an attached box that fills up as leaves are cut before being emptied into sacks on the women's backs. Pickers are only female by the way, the reason given being that they have more patience than men. More likely the men don't want to be out in the sun, preferring to work with the machinery inside the tea factories instead.

In the tea plantation we are visiting I see the silver rock trees up close. The leaves are almost fern like in appearance and the trunks are covered with pepper plants winding their way skywards. We see a little animal scurrying around in the tea bushes below us. It's a sandy colour with a long bushy tailed so could be a squirrel or maybe a mongoose. We also see a naughty cow eating leaves from the tea bushes and wonder if this produces chai latte!

Next stop is the tea factory. Unfortunately we're not allowed to take photos inside, but we do get a great tour learning about all the processes involved in getting leaves picked from the bushes turned into the delicious brew we all know and love. The Wentworth Tea Estate was started up by the British and was taken over by the Indians in 1918. The factory is still using machinery made in Belfast 100 years ago. Now there are 4000 acres of tea plantation on the Wentworth Estate and 850 labourers (70% of whom are women) are employed by the company. More recently there's been a shortage of workers making it hard to pick new shoots (2 leaves and the bud) at the optimum time, sometimes having to leave them 20 days before picking. Unfortunately this produces an interior product, but there's not much can be done about it. Young people are getting better education in India these days creating greater opportunities for them in work sectors such as IT which they prefer to working as tea pickers and factory workers.

So to the tea production processes. First the picked, green shoots are laid out about a foot deep in big troughs that have fans blowing on them from underneath to dry them out and take off any surface moisture. The moisture content is reduced down by 50% by this process. These dried leaves are then shovelled down shutes into the roller machinery on the floor below. Different pressures and timings are used in succession to crush the leaves which releases enzymes. The rollering process is skipped when making green tea. Next the rollered leaves are put into large, rotating mesh cylinders that separate out the smaller pieces from the stalks. These smaller pieces are then transferred to the fermentation room where they are spread out on the floor and mist sprayed into the room to keep it cool. Here the tea leaves change from green to brown due to the oxidation process that takes place.

When we move into the next room we don't have to be told that this is the drying room as the contrast in temperature is huge. Our guide opens a door in the side of the big drier machinery and we see the tea inside on long horizontal, parallel trays that rotate slowly down from the top to the bottom and out onto conveyor belts 21 minutes later now totally dried and black in colour.

But that isn't the end of the process. More sifting takes place to separate coarse from fine processed tea leaves using a jiggling machine with rollers that are magnetised. This bit I don't understand - as far as I know tea leaves aren't magnetic! The last process involves highly technical colour sorting by laser lights. Again - not sure how light physically moves black leaves down one shute and white and orange down another!

Last part of the tour involves sampling one of the Wentworth Tea company's orange coloured teas. I refrain from requesting my usual brew 'weak, milky, half a sugar'! And we get the chance to buy some of the finished teas. I get some of the special white tea as a present for my daughter who is a bit of a tea connoisseur.

As we are settin off on our way to our next destination we suddenly see lots of tea pickers in the plantation by the side of the road so stop to watch what they're doing. Ladies are bringing back huge bundles of leaves balanced on their heads, some are cutting the leaves with little box shears and the rest are on a break, drinking chai and having a spot to eat. They are all so friendly and happy for us to take their photos. What a wonderful way to round off our chai for two, two for chai morning.

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