Tea growing in Kerala

DSC_0482aI spent Christmas and New Year in Kerala, India. We don’t often take ‘proper’ holidays (as in going abroad & staying in hotels) and have never before been anywhere as exciting as India. As well as having loads of fun, I was amazed by the wildlife and plants I saw on my trip, so am planning a few more blog posts.

tea1One of the most impressive places we visited was the tea growing area around Munnar in the Western Ghats, a mountainous area on Kerala’s eastern border. As you can see from the photos, tea leaves grow on pretty evergreen bushes, Camellia sinesis (a member of the camellia family as the name suggests). They give the landscape a lush, cushioned look. Tea picking is still done by hand, mostly with shears, and you see the pickers (more often than not women) out early in the fields with bags of tea on their backs. The plants all looked very healthy, but I would have liked to be able to ask more about their susceptibility to pests and diseases. The tea plants are all kept at around a metre in height and are compact and bushy, though we saw some in hedgerows that had grown to over 3 metres and had a much more open structure.

It’s difficultforest to imagine what it might have been like before the tea planters began farming this part of India, but the wilder areas around Munnar have thick, dense, damp forest – we were picking leaches off our shoes every few minutes on one walk.

Although different areas of the plantations are reserved for different types of tea, we were told that white, green and black tea can all be made from the same plants, but the drying and processing are different. White tea, which I’d not come across before, is made from leaves that have simply been dried in the sun. I imagine this would have a short shelf life so is unlikely to be exported. Green and black teas are the more processed, commercial versions.

tea2tea3Green tea is cut (ie chopped into little pieces) and heat-dried. Black tea is cut, oxidised in an air cylinder, then heat dried. The oxidisation removes some of the bitterness, which was interesting for me as that’s something I dislike about green tea. When I tasted fresh leaves from the bushes they were extremely bitter. Oxidisation unfortunately also removes antioxidants which make green tea a healthier drink. The photos of tea processing are from the Tea Museum in Munnar – I imagine a ‘real’ tea processing plant would be a bit more mechanised and modern than this, but the basic processes are the same.

One thing I particularly enjoyed was the masala tea served in Kerala – black tea with added cardamom, ginger and cinnamon and made with milk. It was fascinating to discover a bit more about my favourite drink!

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