When Dave and I were in Cianjur a few weeks ago we stayed on a Dutch-era tea plantation. We were there to do a story on The Learning Farm, a wonderful organization that recruits kids at risk (under- or unemployed youth, dropouts, etc.) from around Java and teaches them to be organic farmers.
Though we were there because of the food angle there's so much more than farming going on at The Learning Farm; I have so many good thoughts about this venture that I'm on the verge of gushing. For now, suffice it to say that we had a great experience and we'll post a pdf of the article when it sees the light of day (we think March 2009), along with some photographic outtakes. (If any of you reading this live in Jakarta, you can order organic veggies from the farm to be delivered right to your door, once a week. We tasted some - exceedingly tasty! Contact me if you're interested.)
The Learning Farm recently moved from its previous location in the hill town of Puncuk to the Maleber Tea Plantation, where it leases a lovely old house that serves as dorm-office-canteen, and a plot for the farm. One afternoon, when we weren't hanging with the kids, Manager Hendri Adrianto was kind enough to show us around the old tea processing factory. It was quiet, unfortunately - they're not harvesting enough tea at the moment to be processing 7 days a week - but the tour was interesting nonetheless.
The building is simply beautiful. It dates to 1884 and retains many of its original materials - teakwood walls and staircase and stone tile floors. I love being in buildings with a history almost as much as I love eating and I have to admit that when I walked through those double doors and got a load of its beautiful bones, the crasser side of me couldn't help but think that this old two-story building would make just about the most amazing live-work space ever. But after more than 120 years it's still being used to process tea. And that's even better.
After the leaves are harvested they're brought upstairs to the drying rooms, which are long narrow spaces lined on both sides with stacks of sliding racks. The racks are made of bamboo, and woven bamboo covers the ceilings and walls of these spaces as well, so walking into one is kind of like sticking your head into a big bamboo basket filled with dried tea (only not as claustrophobic) - you're just enveloped in a cocoon of marvelously earthy and somehow stimulating aromas. If Malaber could bottle that fragrance, or incorporate it into a soap, they'd make a mint.
The leaves are laid about 5 cm thick on the racks and left for one and a half days to dry in the heat that rises from the sorting machines on the floor below the drying rooms and the sun that bakes the building's roof.
(An interesting aside - during WWII's Japanese occupation of Java the building was used as a prison. There were deaths and now, Hendri told us, strange sounds are heard at night - footsteps on the floorboards of the hallway outside the drying rooms, the squeak-squeak of the wheels of the carts that ferry the tea leaves from one part of the factory to another. Apparitions have been seen too. )
Downstairs, the leaves are ground between huge rotating metal wheels and then sieved by being tossed around in gigantic metal baskets that are moved back and forth by a motor. (No photos for that, or for fermentation, unfortunately. Dave, where were you?)
The ground tea leaves are put into square, shallow tile-lined tubs in a room where the temperature is kept at about 18 degress celsius. This fermentation room has an ingenious cooling mechanism: the walls are lined with coconut husks held in place behind mesh panels, and water is continuously allowed to drip over them. Fans move the coolness from the walls into the room and keep the air from getting too heavy with humidity (which might rot the tea leaves). Why coconut husks? Because they're cheap and they don't rot when they get wet.
Fermentation, Hendri told us, is the stage at which a black tea's flavor develops (green teas aren't fermented), and it's a crucial one - leave the leave too long and they'll rot, not long enough and they'll taste of nothing.
From the fermentation room, the tea leaves are transferred to furnaces, called 'sirocco', for drying. One of the sirocco is original to the building, if you can imagine that. The sirocco reach a maximum of 150 degrees celsius, and the leaves are dried for about 20 minutes or so, depending on how hot the furnace is.
After drying the leaves are moved to another room where they are sorted by weight. Heavier leaves are considered the higher grade of tea. The highest grade are black orange pekoe.
The lowest grade looks like sawdust, and presumably tastes like it too.
The teeniest leaf scraps - a mixture of high and low grades - go into tea bags, while high-grade leaves are packed, by hand, into these nifty boxes.
I'm not much of a tea connoisseur; when I do drink it I tend to veer to green. But while staying on the plantation we woke up with Malaber's black orange pekoe and I have to say it was a bit of an eye-opener (pun intended). (It was also very fresh.) We made sure to pack a box home, and I'm starting to alternate the Malaber pekoe with my usual green for my afternoon cuppa. Good stuff.