It’s always time for a cuppa here in Darjeeling. In fact, the British could be said to have taught the Indians to drink tea. Up until the 19th century, Britain relied on unreliable supplies of tea from China, but with the discovery that tea grew very well in India, then India became Britain’s number one supplier and in turn, Indians fell in love with tea-drinking.
Origins of Tea Growing in Darjeeling
In particular, Darjeeling tea is unusual as it comes from the smaller-leaved Chinese variety of Camellia rather than the native and larger-leaved Assam plant. At the time when Dr Campbell came to Darjeeling in 1839, as well as finding the place a welcome sanctuary to hang out away from the boiling plains of West Bengal, he also found it suitable for growing tea. Planting some seeds that he’d got from China as an experiment in the 1840s; within ten years the government had started setting up tea nurseries to grow tea commercially. Interestingly, it took about another decade for Assam tea to be recognised as tea by botanists, and start to be grown as an alternative.
Facts about Darjeeling Tea
Twenty thousand leaves need to be picked to make up one kilogramme of Darjeeling tea. The whole area is a tea drinkers’ paradise. Much to do with Darjeeling revolves around tea and tourism. Darjeeling’s fine teas are world famous with their unique, slightly spicy, light, floral and delicate bouquets. In order to be classified as ‘Darjeeling Tea’ as defined by the Tea Board of India, it has to be cultivated, grown, produced, manufactured and processed in tea gardens in the hilly areas around Darjeeling that extend down to Siliguri, Kalimpong and Kurseong.
Brand Protection over “Darjeeling” name and use
In the same way that real Champagne cannot be produced anywhere elsewhere in the world than in Champagne in France, so Darjeeling tea is supposed to come from this designated geographical area. However since 2004, though more than 40,000 tonnes per year of tea labelled as ‘Darjeeling’ has been sold all over the world, the actual production of authentic Darjeeling tea is estimated to be only around a quarter of this. Fraud is posing a huge issue. The Tea Board of India is putting a Darjeeling certification mark to try to protect the tea’s designation, but it still remains a problem.
Harvesting of Darjeeling Tea Leaves
Tea is harvested throughout the year. The first ‘flush’ is picked after the spring rains in the middle of March. Considered to be the finest quality with gentle flavours, light colour and a mildly astringent taste, it can be bitter drunk too soon but improves after a few months. An ‘in between’ harvest between the first and second flush is ready in June, but the second flush is often preferred for its fuller flavoured muscatel taste and rich amber colour. Monsoon tea is gathered in the summer between June and October and is much more oxidised, fetching lower prices. It is more often drunk locally as masala chai and is not export quality. The last autumn harvest is picked after end of monsoon in October or in November. Not as delicate or spicy as the earlier teas, it is cheaper and has a full flavour and darker colour.
Visitor Attractions in Darjeeling
Visiting Darjeeling, as well as sampling many of the teas in the local cafes and restaurants, you can visit the little Tea Museum found in the ground floor of the Bellevue Hotel in Chowrastra. Here you can follow the processing of tea from start to finish with displays of equipment and pictures.
Happy Valley Tea Garden is 20 minutes from the main bazaar, the nearest tea garden to the town. If you come at the right time, you will see tea pickers at work, plucking the top leaves of the tea bushes. About two thirds of the workers in tea gardens are women. After picking leaves that are put into large baskets carried on their backs, the tea is taken to the factory for processing.
White, green or black tea, Darjeeling has them all. White tea has a delicate aroma and pale golden colour, and is usually sweeter and more mellow than other teas. The most exquisite is Silver Tips, ‘Champagne of tea,’ commanding some of the highest prices that come from the very top two leaves from each stem. Darjeeling produces two varieties of very fine oolong teas: clonal and China. Clonal comes with a distinct flowery or spicy taste while the China type has a very rare flavour and can sell at up to US$ 200 per kilogramme.
Gandhi Road and Chowrastra is where to find most of the tea shops, cafes and restaurants where you can enjoy your tea admiring terrific views of the Himalayas. The Glenary’s is a tea room that is a veritable institution, commanding one of the most spectacular views across to Kanchenchunga. Tea from the Makaibari estate is served here or for Mim tea, Keventers is just a couple of minutes along Gandhi Road. In between, Goodricke’s cafe serves a variety of their teas from a number of tea gardens. There are many specialist shops selling tea at Chowrastra, at the end of Gandhi Road. If you want to sample life in a tea worker’s home, you can spend the night in a family homestay at the Makaibari tea garden in Kurseong. For more luxurious accommodation, Rangbang near Mirik has a nice tea garden homestay.
Darjeeling currently produces 7% of India’s tea but is increasingly facing competition from other areas of India and countries like Nepal. Tea grown in Ilam, just across the border from Darjeeling in Nepal, though not famous nor exported in great quantity, is often finer in quality and does not suffer the problem of adulteration. Grown from younger tea bushes of the same varieties, the area enjoys a similar climate, altitude and soil as Darjeeling. Even better, it sells for a fraction of the price.