Nabanita Sarkar: ‘Tea is the second highest consumed beverage in the world. A cup of Darjeeling is golden or amber in colour and has a unique delicate flavour, sometimes muscatel sometimes flowery or peachy’
‘The tea bushes go to sleep in the winter. But all actions is below the ground and not above it. When all the activities below the soil bursts into action above the soil, that is the First Flush’ – Rajah Banerjee
In the beginning, there was the ‘first’ flush, and then, as a ceaseless reminder, other flushes kept coming. Suddenly, there were the ‘second’ flush, the ‘monsoon’ flush, and the ‘autumn’ flush. There has to be more than a flash in these flushes, I mused. A numerical sequence was comprehensible, but what were the seasons doing in the midst of order and method? I was at a loss! Surely, this series of ‘flushes’ could not have any relation with Virginia Woolf, I thought in my naivety. Then, I learnt that these were the harvests of tea of the four seasons in a year, the golden harvest to be precise and each ‘flush’ came with their very own distinctive flavour, colour, taste and character.
This feeling of excitement and mystery with tea goes back to my childhood days. It is quite safe to say that I was brought up in the tea growing regions of West Bengal. While I was born in Kalimpong and half of my childhood days were spent there, my grandfather was a manager in a Tea Estate near Kalchini block in the Dooars. Naturally, my vacations were mostly spent in my grandparents’ house. Today, looking back, I realize that those days in the tea estate had actually imbibed a future tea-lover in me. I still remember how I used to wake up to the sirens from the factories of the gardens adjacent to our house every morning and sat in the veranda looking at the vast expanse of rolling greens. I still remember the air that was laden with the aroma of fresh tea leaves from the factory. It felt that the cultures and traditions of the workers of the garden worked in perfect harmony with the production of tea itself. Time passed, I grew up and finished my studies from Jalpaiguri (still a small town back then) and finally settled down in a big city like Siliguri where I started my carrier as a journalist. But my passion and inclination towards tea lead me to leave my job as a journalist. I chose tea as a profession and thus Darjeeling became my field of work.
What began with a simple afternoon sip turned into an inquisitive journey over the years and one day I found a tea sommelier in myself. Like any journey it started with studying the fundamentals first. I was fascinated by the plant Camelia Sinensis(the tea plant). I was surprised to know how distinctively unique this plant could be at its various stages of life while growing from a tiny green shoot to the stage of a mature bush. I kept learning about tea, its history, tradition, geography of the growing regions, types based on fermentations. Its different names, shapes, grades, processing cycles fascinated me even more and that in turn prompted me to build my own palate and develop certain organoleptic qualities.
As a Tea Sommelier, my journey started in the Tea trails of the Himalaya, to be specific-Darjeeling. Nestling in the lush green valleys, Darjeeling has been producing tea for about 200 years and has come to be known as the Champagne of Tea. Darjeeling tea is arguably, the world’s most exclusive, growing at altitudes of ranging from 600 to 2000 metres. Tea is the second highest consumed beverage in the world. A cup of Darjeeling is golden or amber in colour and has a unique delicate flavour, sometimes muscatel sometimes flowery or peachy. Like a fine wine, Darjeeling also commands among the highest prices of tea in the world. Darjeeling tea has been registered as a Geographical indication in India. Darjeeling is a Tibetan word, which means ‘The Land of Thunder’. Tibetan monks named it. The Tea legend and mentor Mr. Rajah Banerjee says, ‘the summer storms, the nor’westers contribute to the name of Darjeeling making it famous. Anything from the cosmos will become famous.
I have seen how difficult it is for the pluckers to navigate in the hilly terrain of the gardens and that is why, I personally would like to call Darjeeling tea, as ‘the nectar of heaven’ which travels from the tea baskets of the pluckers to our cups. My romance with tea is a never ending love affair where I am pampered, loved, caressed and of course spoilt.
‘The thirst that from the soul doth rise, doth ask a drink divine’
What is Orange Pekoe?
Orange Pekoe is the grade name for certain black teas. Orange refers to the House of Orange- Nassau, the monarch family of the Netherlands since mid 16th centuries. They were the single most important importer of tea from Darjeeling throughout the 18th century and a pioneer in producing their own tea followed by the Russian and British. Traders of Netherlands understood the need of a labelling system and as a result they had put their signature on it as Orange. Pekoe is a term commonly used among the tea growers and traders to describe young leaf shoots bearing white down (fine hair).Producers say, the younger the pluck, the better the tea, if all other factors like weather and cultivars are kept constant. It is a true craftsmanship to every cup, passionate commitments to the highest level of quality.
Tea Gardens and their Varieties
All variety of tea under the sun comes from the plant Camellia Sinensis, from there we have other varieties like Sinensis, Assamica and Combod. Most of the tea is made from Sinensis and Assamica variety. Way back in 1841, the Sinensis variety or the Chinese tea bush was found suitable for Darjeeling. Dr. A Campbell brought Chinese tea seeds from Kumaon and planted them in his garden in Darjeeling town. Commercial cultivation began in around 1853. A tea, like no other to this day, the China variety of tea is planted in Darjeeling and it has been discovered that when planted anywhere else in the world, the Darjeeling taste cannot be reproduced. It is just something about the hills of Darjeeling that makes this tea ‘Darjeeling’. Tea gardens are situated at upto 7000 feet high elevation on steep slopes, which provides ideal drainage for the generous rainfall the district receives. The altitude, the soil, the intermittent cloud and sunshine and a dash of something unexplained and wondrous, all seem to work together to orchestrate a masterpiece.
The gardens are called by English or Lepcha names many of whose origins tells parts of the story of Darjeeling : ‘Badamtam’ is a name derived from a Lepcha word that means a bamboo water carrier. ‘Makaibari’ – the Corn-field, ‘Lopchu’ is derived from the local dialect Lepcha, ‘Poobong’ – A valley behind the clouds.
Likewise Marybong, Tumsong, Chamong,Namring, Sungma, Nagri, Glenburn, Giddapahar and so on. Each tea estate is situated in its own special place in the mountains that grants each garden’s tea its own distinctive flavour.This is a magical , mystical Himalayan herb, the Tea, the Darjeeling orthodox tea which encapsulates our soul and spirit. And quite flows life in these silent valleys.
Words and Photos: Nabanita Sarkar