The sparkling brown beverage glinted, as I raised my cup against the soft rays of sun streaming through the window panes of the boutique tea bar. I was in Darjeeling, India—the Queen of the Hills—home to the world’s finest tea. This bar, somewhat plainly named, The House of Tea, was situated in the heart of the city, at its most happening mall, a wide promenade lined with elegant shops and restaurants. Brought up in a family where one wakes up every morning with the aroma of Darjeeling tea, it had always been my ardent desire to taste this ambrosial drink at its place of origin.
Various tea paraphernalia like tea pots, tea sets, tea cosies and tea strainers in finely carved silver, porcelain, bone china, ceramic, steel and glass adorned the glass shelves at the tea shop. Several varieties of the choicest tea from various plantations of Darjeeling were displayed in glass jars which I could smell, feel and taste under the guidance of the hosts. As the leaves of camellia sinensis was left to infuse in hot water, a delicate fragrance permeated the air. In the coming days I was to become a discerning tea taster (well, I thought so!) fully appreciating the complexities and nuances of the exquisite Darjeeling brand of tea.
I had actually started my tea adventure at the Bicky Tea Stall at Garidhura, en-route to Darjeeling from New Jalpaiguri, which gave me a fair idea of what lay in store for me. I enjoyed the finest tea after tucking into delicious hot puris and potato curry on a cold misty winter morning. It was the perfect end to a perfect breakfast and that too at a roadside dhaba.
On route, the sight of lush green plantations on rolling hill slopes at Mirik and later at the Happy Valley Tea Estate in the vicinity of Darjeeling increased my enthusiasm for tea tourism manifold. I had several cups of tea at the various tea stalls that lined the estate perimeters, in the reflected glow of the mighty Kanchenjunga mountain. As the setting sun cast its glow on the pristine white peak, an orange halo enveloped it. A perfect setting for some solitude as T’ien Yiheng had written; “Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world.”
But this region known for its exquisite tea that relaxes and rejuvenates has also had a violent past. The demand for separate statehood with its accompanying violence had riven the town in the eighties. It was only after the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council that a truce had been negotiated. Our driver Sanjeev acknowledged that there was peace but it was an uneasy peace.
Darjeeling is largely populated by Gorkhas, who speak Nepali. Trouble between the Gorkhas and Adivasis (people of local tribes) led to a commonly acknowledged geographic segregation, with the Gorkhas occupying the hills and the Adivasis occupying the low lying areas. With billboards and hoardings in the market proclaiming “Gorkhaland,” the assertion for a separate identity was quite evident.
The chink of cups and saucers at the tea bar was a welcome respite from the simmering political undercurrents in the marketplace and the fresh aroma of tea wafting into the pleasant sunshine awoke my senses. A Victorian Prime Minister William Gladstone had rightly said that if you are cold, tea will warm you; when hot, it will cool you; if depressed, it will cheer you and when excited, it will calm you.
The latent tea connoisseur in me was tapped as I leafed through the menu of exotic names of tea, the various varietals and their qualitative descriptions. These names are actually the tea estates from where they are sourced. I could opt for “Phugari” at a reasonable Rs. 20 or a cup of “Longview” at Rs. 90. The menu card even includes the subtle flavors so one can make an educated choice.
I learnt about the “first flush” (March-April) and “second flush” of tea (May-June) which merely means the first and second pluck of the “two leaves and the bud,” considered the finest plucking. They are most sought after.
First flush is very delicate tea that cannot stand deep steeping. The cup I ordered had light, clear broth. The second flush is fuller bodied with chocolate, malt, lemon or muscatel (grape) character. The flavors jumped on the tips of my tongue. The muscatel or grape taste is a characteristic found only in Darjeeling tea.
The finest two leaves and the bud are plucked to enhance the muscatel flavor, so unique to Darjeeling tea, that becomes more pronounced in spring (second) flush. Autumn flush (Oct-Nov) tea leaves have a slight coppery tinge and the brew has a more delicate character.
The friendly tea attendant helped me make my selection while explaining the nuances of tea tasting. How the tea feels in your mouth determines the body of the tea. Astringency is the pungent sensation that makes it so refreshing.
Through my various tea tasting experiences, I got some terrific insight into the world of tea. The Black, Oolong, Green, White and Organic tea are a result of variations in the way the leaves are processed after they are harvested.
Priced at a whopping Rs 3000/Kg (approx $25/lb), White tea is a connoisseur’s drink consisting of the finest buds and leaves (sometimes only buds) discriminatingly handpicked, steamed and dried. Green tea has medicinal properties as the leaves are withered, steamed, rolled and dried. Black tea is fully fermented and oolong is partially fermented while bio-organic tea is chemical free.
Prior to the British making Darjeeling tea a stylish afternoon drink, the Himalayan native tribes had long been drinking tea imported from Tibet that was coarse, harsh and black.
Credit goes to Dr. Campbell, the civil surgeon who first planted tea seeds brought from China way back in 1841, and the various nurseries of tea plants that sprang up due to the efforts of the British Government. True commercial tea cultivation commenced only in 1870.
The combination of natural factors like cool climate, rich soil, abundant rainfall and steep terrain gives the tea its unique flavor, delicate character and lively aroma. Since this cannot be replicated elsewhere in the world, Darjeeling tea is exquisite and aptly called the “Champagne of the East.”
The tea plants are confined to 86 gardens in and around Darjeeling which produce 10 million Kgs of tea annually.
An arduous manual process goes into plucking the tender leaves, gently but swiftly. Then the leaves are dried, rolled and fermented and then manually sorted and packed.
The old Chowk Bazaar was marked by frenzied activity when I went tea shopping on the last day of my trip. Locals were mixing their Darjeeling leaves with Assam CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl) to get both flavor and color at a low cost. There was whole leaf, broken leaf, fannings (small particles of leaf) and the lowest quality, tea dust available. I opted for the best of the basic medium grade Orange Pekoe whole tea leaves. The charming shopkeeper explained the acronyms SFTGFOP (super fine tippy golden flowery orange pekoe). Tippy denotes generous amounts of leaf tips which are known to produce a more flavorful cup. The tea is pretty expensive and tea officionados joke that FTGFOP stands for “far too good for ordinary people.”
I bought several grades of orange pekoe, Lopchu tea and green tea. The latter was bought on the shopkeeper’s insistence, for all the goodness of its antioxidants.
On our return journey, we chose to drive through Kurseong. Unlike the sloping tea plantations of Mirik, there were many tea plantations on flat land in the Kurseong vicinity. It was intriguing and fascinating to see the narrow gauge railway lines running along the roads from Darjeeling to Kurseong. At places the lines criss-crossed and the bright tiny stations on the way lent a rustic charm to the scenic drive. As the Himalayan toy train chugged past us bellowing soot laden smoke, its rhythmic sound brought back the memory of yesteryear Bollywood superstar Rajesh Khanna and the iconic song, “Mere Sapno ki Rani.” We could well imagine a beautiful Sharmila Tagore peeking through the windows on the train.
The wide expanse of tea bushes on both sides lifted our spirits as we drove along. The women plucking tea leaves and throwing them into the wicker basket tied to their backs was a scene to behold, the stuff of postcards.
Back home, I can smell the muscatel and savor the rich aroma of the fresh, misty hillside, as I sip my morning cup of Darjeeling tea.
Kavita Kanan Chandra is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Mumbai. She has lived and worked in different parts of India and understands the pulse of her country.