If tea changed the history of the world three centuries ago, it is still offering newer routes for rediscovering its delights. One such route, the ‘tea route of happiness’ has brought food writer Marie Christine Clement to Kerala. She is exploring the path that interlinks the brew with boutique hotel properties of Relais & Chateaux, a fellowship of individually owned luxury hotels, in China, Sri Lanka and India. Most of the properties are related to tea in one way or the other. The research will be published as a book later this year.
The three properties in Yunan produce their own brand of pu-erh tea. “The property has the oldest tea tree in the world and the proprietor is protecting a minority group of people, the plantation workers, and their culture,” says Marie who spent two weeks meeting the descendants of the first people who planted tea seeds and live by the 1800-year-old tea tree.
Onwards on the route to Nuwara Eliya estates in Sri Lanka she interacted with the proprietors of the famed Sri Lankan tea brand Dilmah. “The Sri Lankan tea is much younger. I will be focussing on the modernity that is coming into the tea drinking culture through this brand,” she says. In Kerala Marie has visited tea gardens, factories, and warehouses and interacted with people from the trade. Being a food writer she is interested in the spices of Kerala but what is of immense curiosity to her is the absence of a masala chai drinking culture. “Why do people here not drink masala chai or chai tea? There is tea and there are spices here, but I don’t find people in Kerala drinking masala chai,” she questions.
Marie’s foray into food history began in the 80s with research on a list of spices found in the first culinary manuscripts of French gastronomy. A spice called seeds of paradise led to an intense year-and-a-half research before she zeroed in on it as a small version, a look alike of cardamom with a host of tiny seeds, grown in Africa. “It has a flavour lighter than cardamom,” says Marie. Marriage to a leading food personality, the well-known Michelin Star chef Didier Clement furthered her destiny as a food writer. Along with her husband she began operations of the Grand Hotel du Lion dÓr in France, a Relais & Chateaux property. But this was not reason enough to take up serious food writing yet. After her research on the seeds of paradise, her husband prepared a dish with the ingredient, calling it ‘smooth spices’. “It was like a curry, a mix of 12 spices,” she says.
A famous journalist, who is also a guide, was surprised by her thorough research and the consequent dish. He wished to publish the work and so came about Marie’s food writing and first book. Since then she has published 15 researched books on different aspects of food. She wrote on George Sand, the famous French woman writer, on Colette, aA 20th century female writer who was the first to write about the sensuality of food. Marie has also written a book on gardens. With this as background, the concept of ‘the tea route to happiness’ appealed to her. “I always drink tea, always,” she says revealing her love for aged teas – the earthy, leathery, leafy flavours of the pu-erh. “It has the forest in it,” she says. But as is with all fastidious tea sippers she adds milk to certain teas, “those with a rounded taste” like Sri Lankan tea. And then of course being a tea connoisseur, she debates the milk in first ritual.
As a child who was sent to England to learn English and lived with a tea drinking family, Marie learnt that milk in first was the right way to have one’s tea, but now with research and exposure she knows that tea is as much egalitarian as it is elitist, any which way one likes it.
“I am looking forward to masala chai and love the slightly smoky flavours of Nilgiri tea,” she says, raising her cup of tea , the brew that cheers.(The Hindu)