The car winds its way up the hills, from Bagdora to Kurseong to Tung. Night descends upon the hills swifter than in the plains. As far as the eye can see, there’s nothing but darkness with a spattering of lights —a black cloak with minimal sequins, typical of a place that’s made up of mostly tea gardens.
I am on my way to Margaret’s Hope Tea Gardens. A hundred and fifty years old, stretched over 586.16 hectares, it is one of the eight tea estates in Darjeeling owned by the Goodricke Group Limited, the second largest producer of tea in India. Last year alone, the company produced 28.587 million kilos of tea.
The driver decides to take a less travelled route to avoid Darjeeling-bound uphill traffic. First, there was a road, then a semblance of it and soon it was just an illusion. Bones rattle inside my body, and I press my knuckles in my mouth. Oblivious to the quivering bone-sack in the backseat, the man behind the wheel miraculously navigates the vehicle on the narrow excuse of a road, avoiding collision with the occasional gaadi coming downhill. Haunting Nepali folk songs from the car stereo form the perfect score to this chilling drive. I am not even a tea-drinker. How did I, a coffee drinker from South India, end up here? I shake my head in bafflement before it bumps into the side of the car—again and again.
If New York is a city that never sleeps, Anthony Bourdain, the culinary enfant terrible, describes Singapore as the city that “never stops eating”. Darjeeling then, it can safely be said, is a district that never stops drinking tea. Late into the night, in the shadow of light seeping from windows, I see people lounging and sipping cha. In the days to come, I will be offered ‘bed tea’ (along with crackers/biscuits) when I wake up at 5 am (or even earlier) and then before meals, after meals and in between meals. I will constantly be asked, “How about a cup of tea?”
It’s no surprise then that at the end of my heart-in-mouth journey, my hosts at the Margaret’s Hope estate bungalow, manager Parthatosh Chatterjee and his wife Ananya ask me: “How about a cup of tea before you freshen up for dinner?” It is 9 pm, past bedtime in the tea gardens, and I am being offered freshly brewed tea. After a long journey, even for a non-tea drinker like me, a cup of strong tea with milk and sugar is sweet music. The tea arrives in an elegant cup and saucer, but the brew is pale, yellow and transparent. No milk. No sugar. I feel like I was expecting to hook up with a rugged Hugh Jackman from Logan but instead ended up with dainty Ryan Gosling from La La Land. Kill me already! I learn my first lesson. It is profane to add milk or sugar to your tea in the hills. Here it is all about delicate flavours. Robust milky teas are for the ‘common man’ in the plains.
I sip the pale brew. It’s ‘China tea’ from Margaret’s Hope. Back in 1842, when the British wanted to break China’s monopoly over tea, they smuggled Robert Fortune, a Scottish Botanist, into the secret tea gardens of China. (Tea was first discovered in the Yunnan province in China in 2737 BC.) The enterprising botanist, well-versed in Mandarin, returned to Darjeeling with 20,000 black and green tea plants. Some of the tea bushes in Darjeeling are said to have originated from those early plants. I am, it would seem, sipping a pedigreed brew, but the cynic in my head is unimpressed. He whispers, “It is coloured hot water,” and I’m inclined to demur, but then the brew hits the back of my throat. Jasmine? Honey? Lemon? What is that taste? What is that note? With every sip, I think I have nailed the flavour. But at the end of every sip, I wonder again. Sip after sip, I chase the essence. And thus begins my pursuit.
The sun rises early in the hills. Sometimes as early as 4.45 am. Outside the Margaret’s Hope bungalow, tea bushes extend all the way to the horizon, like a green patchwork quilt hugging the slopes of the rolling hills. Breakfast here is an elaborate all-English affair—lace trimmed tablecloth, quilted tea cosies, fruit platters, juices, homemade sausages, baked beans on toast, marmalades, jams, omelettes, ham and cheese. All accompanied by a cup of tea, before, during and after breakfast. Tea is more than a way of life here. “It is life itself,” says Ananya Chatterjee, who spends an hour alone every afternoon with nature and her cup of China tea. “It’s my ‘me time’. A refresher,” she says. Unlike coffee, which gives you a buzz, tea is mellow, an ideal companion for introspection first and then some social bonding later.
I sip a cup of first flush white tea, sitting on a wrought iron chair, overlooking the mountains, trees and tea bushes. The breathtaking 360-degree view seems plucked out of a Merchant Ivory film. The tea tables (local parlance for tea bushes) from these hills produce some of the finest spring teas or first flush teas (white teas, China teas, Clonal varieties), all of which are highly prized by connoisseurs all over the world. Spring tea is made up of tender tea leaves plucked during March and April. It’s the first harvest after three dormant months (December, January, February) when the plants are allowed to “sleep”. Best drunk without sugar and milk, the first flush initially deceived me with its floral flavour. As I took the last sip of my light golden tea, the taste in my mouth was decidedly citrusy, crisp yet slight.
The elements, I learnt, give Darjeeling’s tea its capacity to surprise. The sun, rains, winds, storms and soil give it its unique flavours. They cannot be replicated. Some have tried and failed.
Even though Darjeeling tea contributes to just 1% of tea produced in India, it is the first product in India to have been accredited with a Geographic Indication (GI) status.
As a result, if a tea is not produced in Darjeeling, it cannot pose to be Darjeeling tea. It is with good reason that Darjeeling’s teas are often referred to as the ‘champagne of teas’. They are as exclusive as champagne, cheddar, even scotch.
A 30-minute scenic drive from Margaret’s Hope Gardens brings me to Margaret’s Deck or the Goodricke Tea Pot. Hanging over a hillock, on a clear day, it offers striking views of the Himalayan peaks, gushing streams, lush tea gardens and myriad flowers. (I can even spot orchids.) On a misty day, however, it’s like being in a scene from Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon, all shadows and mystery.
Margaret’s Hope was first known as Bara-Rington. In the early 20th century, the garden was owned by an Englishman, a certain Mr Cruikshank. His daughter Margaret—a girl whose age we are unaware of— fell in love with the estate when she visited her father. Standing at the spot where Margaret’s Deck now does, she loved savouring the bounty of nature. Margaret soon had to return to England for a short visit, but during the journey, she fell ill and died of a tropical disease. Her father named the garden ‘Margaret’s Hope’ in memory of his girl, she who loved the garden dearly and wished to return to it one day. “She was always happy and hopeful when she looked at the tea gardens,” says Moloy Sarkar, Goodricke group manager. “Local legend has it that Margaret’s happy spirit still hovers around and that’s why all those who visit the gardens feel happy too.” It’s a legend I can readily subscribe to.
Outside the gates of the tea house runs the two-foot-wide railways track on which plies the iconic Darjeeling Toy Train, chugged by steam engines. Life rolls out in Eastman colour when you sit on the deck, sip your ‘summer tea’, and watch the train go past, whistling and billowing smoke.
Apt for afternoons and evenings, summer tea is also known as second flush tea. This brew is made out of more mature leaves, plucked during May and June. It is stronger and brighter than spring teas, almost coloured like wild honey. “It’s fruity,” somebody offers, but every time the brew goes down my throat, I taste petrichor. That’s that surprise in the cup again. Tea, though, is not only served in a cup here. You also find it in cookies and snacks. I even learn that instead of throwing away the brewed spring tea leaves, you can chop it and use it as flavoured herbs in fillings for momos.
It’s not until I meet Neena Pradhan, curator of menus at Margaret’s Deck, that I realise how passionate people in Darjeeling are about their teas. Having been a tea planter’s wife for more than four decades, Neena breathes tea. She always carries her “travelling tea pouch”, so she will never be in want of a good cup of tea. Her tea pouch consists of a mini emersion rod to boil water in a cup, tea strainer and a box of her favourite tea. She also carries a flask of hot water as a backup. “People don’t know how to brew a good cup,” she bemoans. So, how does one brew a perfect cup? According to Neena, you bring water to a light boil. “Not rolling boil,” she warns. Pour it into your cup and add a teaspoon of tea leaves. “It is always one tablespoon to a cup,” she adds. You soak it for three minutes, let it cool down a bit and then drink it warm. “Tea should never be consumed hot,” she explains. “You get the full essence of the flavour almost in the last sip,” she says. A good tea, I find, must always leave you chasing its flavour.
After a 20-minute drive from Margaret’s Deck, I find myself in the 319-hectare Castleton Tea Estate. On a bright sunny day, you can see Mt Kanchenjunga, the third tallest mountain in the world, from the lawns of the manager’s bungalow. The next morning, though, a blanket of mist covers everything in sight, and I can’t even see the end of my nose. So, I sit and chase the flavour of Muscat grapes in a beautiful china cup. Sometimes peachy, at times winey, this one has an unmistakably fruity essence.
Muscatel tea is made out of tea leaves that are plucked two weeks within the second flush. Established in 1885, Castleton is famous for its Muscatel tea. “It’s hard to pinpoint the flavour of a tea accurately. But we believe it tastes like Muscat grapes, hence the name,” says Vikas Gajmer, Senior Manager of Castleton Tea Estate. The tea gets its unique flavour from the leaves chewed by aphids or green flies.
Monsoon and Autumnal Teas
Monsoon Flush or Monsoon teas are strong. Dark and heavy, they carry the smell and flavour of ripeness. These teas are made from leaves, mature and long, plucked during July and mid-October. This tea is what is used in blends and tea bags. The autumnal flush becomes available between October and November, the months of Darjeeling’s last harvest. The brew is flowery and full-bodied. Usually, this ends up as CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl)—the tea dust that goes into the making of “common man’s” tea.
After days of being suffused with delicate brews, I yearn for a cup of good ol’ CTC, and this when I learn my second lesson. Never ask for a cup of CTC in Darjeeling. They can brew you a delicately flavoured tea to perfection, but they will louse up brewing the common man’s tea. I learnt it the hard way. Twice.
Though Castleton is famous for the fine Moonlight teas it is at the 819.53-hectare Thurbo Tea Garden, established in 1872 and a two-hour drive from Castleton that I was able to hound the essence of the elongated and hand-rolled leaves of Moonlight tea. Thurbo gardens alone produces 1600kgs of Moonlight a year.
It was at Margaret’s Deck that my interest in Moonlight was piqued. A traveller from Hyderabad who sitting at the adjacent table was so taken in by the Moonlight tea that he didn’t blink before dropping Rs.5000 for a 100 gms packet of Moonlight tea to take back home. What alchemy of flavour is at play?
One last chase for me to discover before I return home.
I sit with my cup of Moonlight, looking at the vast tea tables stretching out in front of me, remembering Neena’s words: “Let it cool down a bit before you drink.” I wait.
In the hills, time rocks slowly. Memories merge. Birds with daffodil-yellow beaks and dark plumes sing native tunes. They are the Thrush birds, I am told, brought to this land by the invaders. The rhythm of life makes you think of lost loves, of sweet encounters, of people come and gone. There is no sadness, just a realisation of what ‘is’ and the anticipation of what will be.
I sip the fabled Moonlight tea. A beautiful golden-yellow brew. Light as dew. Sip. Sweet as wild honey. Sip. Floral in note. But what flower? Sip. Or is it nutty? Sip. Floral? Herb? Sip….the chase goes on.
The Darjeeling district lies in the north of West Bengal and the foothills of the Himalayas. Mt. Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain, can be seen from many parts of Darjeeling town. Kurseong, Siliguri and Mirik are some other well-known towns of this district. The nearest airport is Bagdogra. If you have to fly out from Bagdogra, make sure you are at the airport at least 3-4 hours before departure. Though small, the airport stays busy. It takes one and a half hours to reach Kurseong from Bagdogra by road and the same amount of time to reach Darjeeling from Kurseong. The nearest railway station is New Jalpaiguri.
July to August is monsoon season. December, January and February are the coldest winter months, and people from the plains might find it hard to cope with the chill. Even in summer, it pays to carry an umbrella or a jacket as you don’t know when it will rain or get foggy.
The Windemere Hotel is a cluster of cottages from the British Raj (guests have included the King of Sweden and Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary). Visitors can also stay at one of the tea estates. On the higher side is the Glenburn Tea Estate, where guest rooms are surrounded by acres of tea plantings and trees (www.glenburnteaestate.com; doubles ₹33,000). The Goomtee Tea Resort, with a four-room main house, makes the tea estate feel like home (www.goomteeresorts.com; doubles ₹9,800); the bio-organic Tumsong Chaibari Tea Estate & Retreat, has four suites (www.darjeelingchiabari.com; doubles ₹8,500). Visitors may also enjoy a homestay with one of the working families at the Makaibari Tea Estates (www.makaibari.com; ₹800 per person per night).
Margaret’s Deck or the Goodricke Tea Pot in Kurseong is an ideal place to have breakfast or lunch. You could also just stop here for some refreshing tea before you proceed to Darjeeling. (A meal for two costs ₹800-1000). They don’t offer dinner. In Darjeeling, you have the iconic Keventer’s on Nehru Road. It is known for its sausages, sandwiches and hot chocolate. There’s also the colonial-era Glenary’s Cake Shop, which is renowned for its cake and chocolates. They have a restaurant upstairs that serves Indian, Chinese and Continental dishes. Their cheese and macaroni come highly recommended. Other recommendations would be the momos at Kunga Restaurant, on Gandhi Road. Fans of breakfasts—French toast, hash browns—swear by tiny Sonam’s Kitchen, on Dr Zakir Hussain Road, and north Indian curries star alongside Thai and Chinese dishes at The Park restaurant, on Laden La Road.
Shopping for Tea
Nathmulls showcases more than 50 teas and is famous for its tastings. Tea Emporium, in business since 1940, offers tastings and careful selection. You can also buy Goodricke teas from Margaret’s Deck.
The process of making tea
Tea leaves (two leaves and a bud) are plucked early in the morning when it still covered with dew. The plucked leaves are brought to the factory for processing. The leaves are carefully dumped onto the troughs to “remove moisture” with the help of cool/hot air fans. It’s known as the withering stage. Depending on the climate it might take up to 2-16 hours to complete the withering process. Then the tea is rolled in a rolling machine. For the delicate first flush teas there’s hardly any pressure on the roller. After 10 minutes the leaves go straight to the drying table. Some fine teas are hand rolled. Like the Darjleeng pearl teas which are time-consuming, but fetches mindboggling price especially from the Japanese customers. However, for all other teas, the rolling process the tea is taken to the fermentation table where it is spread out and left to oxidize for anywhere between 20 minutes and above. The more it oxidises the stronger the brew. The leaves are then fed to the dryers that use hot air at varying degrees to stop the further fermentation process. The tea is then sifted in mesh sifters and separated according to the sizes and sent for packing. This takes the longest time in the entire tea making process.
This appeared in National Geographic Traveller India