four-arched bridge with tea bushes in background

Cutting Tea on the Black Sea

Avalanche! A dozen bounding bags came crashing down the mountainside through the trees. I sprang to the right to avoid being hit. One sack still swayed above, though, suspended in a crook of forked branches. What was happening?

One day before, I had arrived at an A-frame bungalow in northeast Turkey. During check-in, a man asked to move my car to the right side of the driveway. When I asked why, he replied simply, “Tea.” I had unknowingly stumbled into the tea-cutting season.

Having lived along Turkey’s Black Sea coast for the past four years, I’ve explored much of the valleys and waterfalls that populate this rainy region. Abundant high pastures yield wonderful cheeses, yogurt and other dairy products. The region from Trabzon west to Ordu produces 80% of the world’s hazelnuts. But in Rize, close to the former Soviet border with Georgia, tea is king.

Rising Covid-19 cases throughout Turkey in April forced a strict 17-day stay-at-home lockdown in May. It helped. Some weekday restrictions were now lifted. Thus, my wife and I decided to spend a weekend getaway in a creekside chalet in the Kaçkar mountains near Çamlihemşin. Relaxing and reading were on the agenda. But now, a new quest had been added – discovering the source of the falling sacks.

Growing up in America’s Deep South, I learned to love sweet iced tea on muggy summer days. Traveling to other countries and continents brought the joys of sipping hot tea and learning its associated culture. But I had never stopped to think about where that tasty brew originates. I would soon learn.

It’s difficult to describe how important tea is to Turkish culture. Like threads woven into Turkey’s colorful carpets, tea-drinking encompasses every aspect of daily life. Old men sip it while playing backgammon in neighborhood teahouses. Families keep a double-tiered teapot simmering during the day. It’s served with breakfast, lunch, dinner and any time between. I’ve been offered tea while standing at a bank teller window, purchasing printer cartridges, waiting at the dentist office and getting a haircut.

While quarantine rules forbid car trips on weekends, local foot travel was allowed. Donning our face masks, we began walking toward the nearby hamlet of Çayırdüzü. Blankets of lush green shrubs covered both sides of the valley. Water raced down a roadside flume. The splashing spillway guided us uphill where we found a waterfall tucked into a cleft.

Something stirred behind us. Popping up from behind a boulder were six children. We waved and greeted them in Turkish. They seemed shy and disappeared. We scrambled back over to the road and soon found ourselves amongst the same kids. Excited to meet a foreigner, two began jabbering in a mix of Turkish, English and Laz. The oldest was Deniz, a high school girl studying in nearby Rize. Next was Jon, an excitable boy who seemed intent on showing us around. Two smaller boys tried to get a word in at times, while two tiny tots tagged along. Indicating we should follow, they led us up a one-lane road.

Sprawling tea bushes stretched across the slopes looking like giant ant farms. Stooping workers meandered between narrow rows, steadily snipping off leaves with large shears. Others trailed, stuffing the leaves into woven plastic sacks.

A fully-loaded truck, piled high with bulging bags, came rumbling down the road. We balanced on the steep hillside as it joggled past. Our young guides explained that the tea is cut three times a year – in May, July and September during the warmer, wetter months. The plants are left alone for the winter, when not only do they become dormant but many roads become blocked with snow.

Trudging up the hill in the hot sun was tiring, so the tea cutting work had to be exhausting. For a tall person like me, the thought of bending over at the waist all day was unfathomable. We came to a mountain spring with a water tap. Common throughout Turkey, these public fountains are still a welcome source of drinking water. We refreshed ourselves, lapping the water by hand.

Next to the fountain hung an unusual device. Suspended by pulleys and ropes from above, it seemed to be a type of cable car. Wires stretched downhill to an isolated valley. Deniz explained that the machine is used for transporting sacks of tea uphill to the road. In other spots, tea bags are pushed by hand down the hill where gravity deposits them to the nearest access point. I now understood the source of the earlier avalanche!

Language learning is always an adventure, especially when trying to discover and negotiate the meaning of new words. Pointing at the utility cart, I kept trying to get one of the kids to tell me the Turkish word. Words for “elevator,” “funicular” and “cable car” didn’t ring a bell. Finally, one of the younger ones blurted out “teleferic!” Ah, the same word used for Istanbul’s gondola ride at Pierre Loti.

Not just for tea, these lifts are also used by residents for hauling supplies up to their mountain villas. Some homes date back to pre-revolutionary Russia when people worked as cooks and bakers in the era of the czars. A few cables stretch above to hidden mansions, the long wires vanishing in places among the mist.

We came to a fork in the road. The two little girls, who had said nothing all day, began waving and shouting – “problem!” Jon countered, “No problem!” We asked what the “problem” was ahead. “Bears!” they shouted. The sun was sinking behind the mountains as the shadows lengthened. We turned back.

As we made our way down to the village, we came to a local depot. Sacks of fresh-cut tea leaves are brought to this barn-like shed by local trucks that can navigate the mountain switchbacks. Here leaves are unloaded and stored temporarily. Larger lorries collect them for transport to one of the nearby tea factories.

steep slopes covered with tea plants

At the factory, tea leaves are laid out on a wire mesh to dry, before being pressed and tumbled by a roller drum. Special machines crush and sift the tea before it is spread out in a controlled room to develop the flavor and aroma. Finally, the tea is put in a hot drying chamber to remove all moisture before being packed for shipment.

Retracing our steps to the bungalow, it was time for the best part of the process – drinking the tea! Black tea in Turkish is brewed differently from the English way. Turkish teapots are stacked in matched pairs. The smaller top pot steeps the dried tea in a strong brew while the water boils in the larger bottom pot. The tea is then poured by the glass to mix weak (açık) tea, or the stronger “rabbit’s blood” (tavşan kanı) color like my wife enjoys. Small tulip-shaped clear glasses allow the server to see the color, and thus the strength, of each glass.

Arriving at our guesthouse, we noticed a few new arrivals. Yes, there were two more cars parked on the right side behind ours. Moreover, jumbled tea sacks sprawled higgledy-piggledy along the left, right where my car had been parked the day before!

tulip-shaped Turkish tea glass

Essential Travel Hacks:

  • Trabzon airport provides the nearest access, although a new airport near Rize will open in 2022. Turkish buses ply the coastal route and are comfortable and convenient.
  • Places to Stay: Tanura bungalows, Bungalove Tatil Köyü, Çimen Apartment and Tuva Villas.
  • One final tip – if you rent a car, make sure to park on the opposite side of the slope!
river beside hillsides covered in tea plants

One thought on “Cutting Tea on the Black Sea

  1. Well done Douglas, I can see why you love the country side of Turkey, your pictures are lovely. Only regret is Sylvia and I got a bit too old to leave the shadow’s of Tucker Ga.
    Your description of the Tea leaf gathering reminds me of the tobacco industry in South Carolina. Not the smoking, the gathering in the fields, which I found not to desirable, but, somebody has to do it.
    Fun visiting with you two Sunday. Hope things went well with Shelly in Greenville this week.
    Hope to see you soon.
    Charlie and Sylia

    Liked by 1 person

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