In daily Turkish, if you are traveling and want to refer to your luggage and all that goes with a trip plus bags, you say “bagaje m-agaje” (bah-gahj–mah-gahj). Sort of like simplified pig Latin, you repeat the word replacing the first letter with “m”. So Ҫay may (“chai, my”) means tea and all that accompanies it.
Linda was sorry she told me this. Nancy and I traveled with Linda to Rize. In the boon year of 2008 Turkey produced nearly as much tea as China, and more than India. Usually it ranks fifth. Tea is grown in the Rize area on the Black Sea, about 50 miles from the Georgian border. The eight-year-old in me chanted “dondurma, mondurma” (ice cream), “”pastane, mastane (pastry), and so on. We were all hungry and Linda and Nancy rolled their eyes at my age-inappropriate silliness. Thrilled to learn something other than my pathetic schoolbook Turkish, I have to use it or lose it, right?
Turks drink more tea than Brits per capita (at least in 2004), and it is ubiquitous in everyday life. Linda was charged with photographing çay-may for a book on tea in Turkey written by Pelin Aylangan http://www.teainturkey.com/ . Nancy and I tagged along with our cameras.
We flew to Trabzon and took the bus to the town of Rize, the capital of Rize province. Year-around, the area gets the most precipitation of any place in Turkey and in Western Asia. It is yemyeşil (very green). There is little other industry in Rize, and çay-may dominates. In town, steep verdant growing fields meet the sea, processing plants line the shore road, wholesale and retail shops abound as do tea houses where men sip the hours away.
Stakebed trucks, with tea leaves escaping their canvas covers, share the road. I winced as I noticed leaves fluttering away, after seeing all it took to get them in the truck. Up the hills in the growing areas, freshly cut tea leaves are bundled in big colorful tarps and tossed in pickups or pushed on carts to storehouses by men and women, tea-pickers take lunch by the side of the road, the slopes are dotted with bunches of pickers and their collection tarps. The smell of tea, either freshly cut or being fermented in the factories mixes with sea air.
Pelin had arranged for a Lipton representative to take us to the plantations. Halit, our guide, is a local with a degree in forest management. He told us the Rize area is semi tropical, hot wet summers and some winter snow, so typical tea pests are not resident and pesticides are unnecessary. He cheerfully obliged Linda’s requests, driving us around, securing approval for photo taking from pickers in the field, hosting a lovely lunch at a fish restaurant on Fırtına Deresi (“storm creek”), and finally taking us to an outcropping on the sea shared with a modest fish restaurant. While we were there the couple whose wedding he was attending later that evening showed up for photos.
We got the lowdown on çay research and production the next day. We visited the General Directorate of Tea Foundation, and watched both black and green teas being processed. Black tea is processed from leaf to bag in about 11-14 hours. All of the fields are privately owned. There are some migrant workers, but often it is family members who do all of the cultivation and harvest. The average farm is 10 donums which is about 2 ½ acres.
The çay plant is a dense shrub, and fields are closely planted. Pickers stand in narrow furrows and use shears to chop the new growth three seasons a year. Only the upper half of a picker is visible. Pickers use shears attached to a collection bag, which they empty into tarps laying across the top of the plants.
It is hard work, especially on steep inclines and in the humid heat of the summer, but I was struck at relative ease of growing tea versus coffee. In Turkey, these family farms can earn a solid living for the owners. The plants have economic lives of 50 years. Other than three seasonal prunings, they require little upkeep. Ҫay farmers contract with the tea processors, similarly to how residential and small vineyards contract with wine producers in the California wine country.
By comparison, coffee – the specialty coffees most of us drink – is also produced on small farms, but those producers struggle to survive. In El Salvador, where Jim and I visited fairly-traded coffee plantations in 2006, we saw the relatively greater difficulties of picking the beans, and profitably navigating the predatory middlemen in transporting, roasting and getting it to market. Without fair trade agreements, those farmers often cannot grow at a profit, and lose their farms. Frequently their villages are without running water and electricity, needing the boost of the fairly traded income to add even the basics to their lives. We watched coffee pickers lug their heavy bags on their backs up the narrow tracks in the hills to be weighed.
Some of the Rize area çay fields on steep slopes have teleferikler (funiculars) to haul the tied tarps of picked leaves up to the street where they are loaded onto wagons or trucks to go to the weighing station. It looks like the çay industry in Turkey generally provides a comfortable, modern existence to the farmers. At times the growing fields surround the farm homes, with families simply stepping outside to harvest their crop. Farms are close to modern cities and towns and crop collection depots are near the fields.
Most Turkish çay is consumed in Turkey. It is drunk sade (black, actually red), or with sugar. Turks do not add milk. Since the focus of our trip was to photograph çay-may, we were offered and drank many glasses a day. I reached a saturation point around lunchtime of the second day, when I switched to Türk kahvesi…accepting, though, every glass of çay offered me in hospitality. Each tea glass photographed becomes a portrait of the person who offered it.
Depending on the vista, the Rize area reminded me variously of the Mediterranean coast of Italy, Vermont hills with minarets in place of church steeples, the Truckee River in Lake Tahoe along Highway 89, Upper Lake on Clear Lake in northern California, and scruffy ski towns in summer.
Jim and I have become regular tea drinkers here. The ritual of being offered and drinking tea is a part of the daily rhythm. It is ubiquitous in the workplace. Ҫay-runners bring glasses on trays from central kitchens in the bazaars and through the streets to shopkeepers. When shooting, Linda stops for frequent tea breaks, and naturally in meetings and after being guided in the factories, tea breaks were de rigueur.
When brewed properly, Turkish tea is smooth, fresh and fragrant, not harsh, bitter nor astringent. Its color is reddish brown. Turks use a çaydanlik to brew tea for a few people. It works the same way a samovar does for a larger group of people. Tea leaves go in the top pot with hot water, which sits on a hot water reservoir below. The tea is very strong, and one pours an amount in the glass and then fills with hot water to achieve the desired strength.
A Turkish friend asked me how I liked Turkish tea, did I prefer more exotic varieties from elsewhere? Turkish tea is cut, not hand-picked, which bruises the leaves. Tea connoisseurs feel that hurts the flavor. But, because of the friendly hospitality each glass brings, I love the Turkish tea the best.
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