Darjeeling celebrates all the fine things that go into the making of the world-famous brew produced in the tiny Himalayan tract
DARJEELING. FOR most people, the name may evoke pictures of either hilly roads cleaving through dense, tall evergreen forests, or groups of women with conical wicker baskets on their backs leisurely plucking tea leaves on the slopes. Sometimes, images of a ‘toy train’ (now a Unesco world heritage site) billowing smoke from its coal-fired engine and absorbing the magnificent beauty of the Lesser Himalayas may also come into play.
Yet, for those who truly savour tea, or have made understanding the unique flavours produced by tea leaves from various tea-producing regions of the world an intricate part of their lives, Darjeeling is much more than that. It is where the world’s premium tea, or the “champagne of tea” as it is often called, is produced—that with characteristic brightness frequently likened to newly minted coins, fragrant aromas, and sophisticated, complex flavours.
In Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea, Barcelona-based American writer, photographer, traveller and cook Jeff Koehler doesn’t hide his love for the hot and steamy beverage, which has now become a major part of many people’s daily routines, as he celebrates the really finer things that go into the making of the world-famous brew grown and produced in the tiny Himalayan tract.
What makes Darjeeling tea singular is the fact that it is cultivated only in 87 tea estates (covering just about 19,500 hectares) along a slender spine of land in northeast India. The region produces only a fraction of the world’s tea, and less than a single percent of India’s total. Yet the tea from the limited crop is the indisputable jewel in India’s tea-producing crown, its most iconic brew, and the flag-bearer of Indian teas abroad. “Here, ecology, history, tradition, culture and terroir come together to create a sublime product with an unduplicable essence,” writes Koehler, known for his earlier works such as Spain: Recipes and Traditions, which was named one of 2013’s top cookbooks by The New York Times.
Darjeeling is an “orthodox” black tea, meaning it is unmixed—withered, rolled, fermented and fired in the traditional method by hand. Since there is so little of it—it takes 22,000 handpicked shoots (just the tender first two leaves and a still-curled bud) to produce a single kilo of Darjeeling—in comparison to green or other kinds of tea, the prices it fetches at auctions are enormous. In fact, Koehler starts the narration in the auction rooms of J Thomas & Co, India’s oldest firm of tea brokers and auctioneers, where one lot of Darjeeling tea—a fine “Silver Tips Imperial”, “picked under a full moon” from Makaibari—eventually went for a record-breaking R18,000 ($390.70) a kg—or, as Koehler puts it, 250 times the country’s average for tea at auction. The year was 2003.
Koehler dedicates the entire book to the unique history and tastes of Darjeeling tea, chronicling its journey from early British tea traders engaging with imperial China, to colonial-era European pioneers searching for the ideal places to grow tea in India, and finally to the Indians who now own and run the tea estates of Darjeeling and who continue to send the teas around the world, often for top prices.
In between, Koehler turns his attention to other facets of the tea industry like tea tasting. While tasting has a routine and a ritual, it is not fully quantifiable nor scientific. “There is a science to it, yes, but also an art,” Koehler quotes well-known industry hand Sanjay Kapur as saying.
At the same time Koehler also delves into the current realities for the region, which are not so picturesque. Indian’s marquee product is fighting for its future on several crippling fronts. While the erratic and unpredictable monsoon is making it particularly problematic, unauthorised absenteeism has also become acute. It is an at-times archaic world where artisans produce teas using methods and tools that have barely changed in a century and where tens of thousands of women (and it is always women) pluck the leaves by hand every year. Another issue for Darjeeling is the separatist movement by ethnic Gorkhas, who make up three-fourths of the region’s population and essentially all of the tea industry’s workforce.
The book is an engaging read, especially with regards to the manner in which it has been written. Koehler has the knack of a good storyteller—you’ll definitely feel like putting the kettle on fire and raise a hot cup of tea with some delightful accompaniments (you can find the recipes to Koehler’s favourites towards the end of the book), if not anything else. To the cup that cheers.