A journey through tea with explorer Jeff Fuchs

Saturday, 23 August 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Author of ‘The Ancient Tea Horse Road’ and explorer Jeff Fuchs arrives in Sri Lanka this week for a 10-day tea tour around the island, from 22 to 31 August, designed by SriLankaInStyle and in partnership with Dilmah Tea. The journey passes through some of Sri Lanka’s most remote and serene tea valleys and landscapes, blending luxury with an element of adventure for the intrepid in a rare opportunity for travelers to access some of Sri Lanka’s true bastions of tea and island beauty while taking in Sri Lanka the way it should be: up close and personal. Here, SriLankaInStyle Product Manager Kshanika Argent interviews Fuchs Q: What first got you interested in tea? A: My father was always fiddling with all things Asian and subcontinent, food-wise, beverage-wise, and philosophy-wise. Tea was in the home for as long as I can remember. When I first touched down in Taiwan, I was fortunate to meet a tea master who became a mentor in time...this hooked me. The geographies, the people of tea, the little special touches that made such differences in a flavour. Tea and mountains have always been linked as well simply because during treks and journeys through the Himalayas, tea (though a potent buttered version) was the only fluid consistently available. Q: You’re often referred to as a Tea Maven, could you describe that role? A: An interesting term that I’ve wondered about as well. I am never without several teas, whether it be on trails in the mountains or in the cities, and though I go on tangents about tea I am quite happy slurping away without going on about it. Maybe the thinking is that a “tea maven” is someone who is a fervent advocate of the leaf and also of the people and earth that create and provides the final products. The leaves are nothing without the hands, the care, and the soils that provide and produce it. Much of my journeying is based solely on either mountains or tea and sourcing tea (even bad teas) is often part of the fun. I suppose the whole ‘maven’ thing might simply be someone who is slightly obsessed and slightly neurotic about tea, and someone whose every moment hinges slightly on the next discovery, sip, or tea disappointment. Q: You’ve made Yunnan your home for many years now, what drew you to Yunnan and, will it always be home? A: Yunnan had that delicious combination of mountains, tea, and culture that I craved when I first travelled there in 2003 and it remains that way for me. It was also a pivotal region in the almost eternal life of the Tea Horse Road (which became such a vital part of my being) and I thought what better place to be based and to take in tales of the fringes of the Middle Kingdom, and the Himalayas. It has also served as a kind of home and base, but I’m a bit of a wanderer and I imagine it will function as one of those very familiar and nostalgic places for me that I’ll continue to return to in the future. The place is quite literally in the blood for better or worse. Q: If you could pick one memorable moment during your eight-month expedition through the Himalayas, what would it be? A: For all of the geographies, it was inevitably the people who either travelled the route or remembered it that remain with me. We met an ancient Tibetan woman from who had hosted traders at her famed home in Kalimpong (West Bengal). It was at the end of my own journey and I (as the old traders had been) was being hosted by this still majestic woman. Fed, served tea, and fawned over I quietly sank into the first truly physical comfort that I had in months. She spoke for days of the old days of trade, of the traders and friends she’d outlived and of tea’s eternal value in not simply being an item of trade, but how it could bring communities together and stir the mind, while also fuelling the body. She spoke of the leaves and people as though they were one. It was a series of moments with this gracious hostess that remain, certainly because of her and partly because I sadly realised that my own journey was at an end. Q: Tell us about your new venture Jalam Teas; who grows it and what makes it so special? A: Jalam Teas is an extension for me of the Tea Horse Road teas that travelled for centuries, made available to the greater public. Only Puerh teas and only from limited batches of tea that I hand source in southern Yunnan province, my partners and I have made it a subscription possibility for those looking to get a reasonable 100 gram sample cake every month that explores both the earth, the minority behind the tea, and the qualities themselves of the tea. It is like a cultural, fluid adventure every month that hopefully educates as much as it does satisfy. Q: Now that you find yourself in Sri Lanka, tell us how you first landed here and what brings you back? A: Lanka and good friend Miguel (of SriLankaInStyle) had long beckoned me. As much as anything it was the history and culture of this island that played such a role on the great Spice routes of history that drew me in. It seemed a wonderful mix of movement, savvy, and culture. It is all of that and so very much more. Now I’m returning for a third wonderful time to delve a little deeper into all things tea with SriLankaInStyle and Dilmah Teas. We’re seeking to develop a tea themed adventure through Sri Lanka’s stunning layers and I’m here to speak about this journey, and my own journeys tracing trade routes through the Himalayas. An injection of mountain narratives into an island of many of its own narratives. Q: Where do you think Sri Lanka stands, amongst the tea producing regions? A: Sri Lanka is massive when you think of what much of the Western tea world thinks of in terms of their tea palate. Black teas have been the great domain of Sri Lanka, but for me what is more interesting are the teas that are lesser known. The silver tips and golden tips are superb if they are done right and yet they are rarely spoken of in relation to Sri Lankan teas. I’d love to see new blends coming out and some risks being taken with production in the sense that the raw materials are there and it would expand how Sri Lankan teas are interpreted if there were some ‘experiments’ with untraditional methods.   "The leaves are nothing without the hands, the care, and the soils that provide and produce it. Much of my journeying is based solely on either mountains or tea and sourcing tea (even bad teas) is often part of the fun"   Q: Where in Sri Lanka, do you have your favourite brews? A: Two teas stand out in my mind, inevitably as much for the context as for the teas themselves. One a stunning first flush bomb of a tea back in 2011 in Nuwara Eliya. It was a spring harvest and I wish every day that I had invested in more and bought up the entire stock. Had a pot of it first sitting watching rain come down in heaps and for whatever reason that tea (which I bought a half kg of) acted as a kind of elixir on me. It was stunning! The second was a tea from Uva that I had with Miguel on a cross-island tea trek we were on. It was a powerful tea that seemed to stain both the enamel in my mouth and the brain with its initial intensity. Otherwise I’m always sampling teas and trying to find those special few teas that may not be ‘perfect’ but that move the mind and mouth with something a little intense. Q: What’s your favourite story from your travels here? A: One of my closely held memories is not of any huge reverie or adventure but rather scampering up some tea hills in the pouring rain near Nuwara Eliya in my bare feet. Women were still harvesting in their giant cloaks as they themselves. I wanted to simply to be amongst them and after a while they went on chatting and laughing while I wandered around slipping and wiping out in the muddy slopes between the rows of tea. Soaking wet, mud-splattered but content. Q: What’s the next stop on your explorer’s path? A: Looking at two more ancient trade routes in the Himalayas and retracing them...and plotting which teas to take on the expeditions.