Text and Photographs by Cindy-Lou Dale
Darjeeling teas are aromatic and substantial, harvested by hand from some of the finest tea estates in the world. It’s the allure of these world-famous teas that brings me to this part of India.
I check into my hotel just in time for afternoon tea. As I make my way to enjoy the tea service, I search out the renowned vista the hotel’s veranda presents. India rewards me with a wide panorama across a timeless and fetching landscape of deep mauve valleys cradled in the wooded foothills of mist blue mountains.
Darjeeling’s elegant Windamere Hotel is a gracious colonial gem whose grand views include the surrounding tea and cardamom estates, as well as the Himalayan mountain range. Here, turbaned staff serve afternoon tea in cosy, inviting corners in the library or the front parlour, where books and newspapers are loosely strewn around. The deep Victorian sofas, immense gilded paintings, and framed photographs of stiffly posed people are somewhat reminiscent of a lived-in museum, especially so with Vera Lynn playing on a gramophone somewhere. Similarly the landscaped garden, with its quiet crevices and moss-softened corners, adds a touch of nobility and piety to the stone structure.
Whilst enjoying my tea, I happen across a charming, somewhat eccentric local, Rajah Banerjee, who looks very sharp in his colonial khakis. He is making a tremendous fuss over how tea should be poured and drunk. It gives me immense pleasure to learn that my late father was not the roughneck my mother claimed him to be when he drank tea from his saucer.
“Not at all,” says Rajah. “That is possibly one of the better ways to enjoy tea.”
Rajah is a fourth-generation Bengali tea farmer, highly regarded by the locals who refer to him as the “godfather of Darjeeling Tea.” He relays accounts of the wonderful life on Makaibari, his vast tea estate, to a captive audience of fellow guests who rapidly swell in numbers as late afternoon progresses into early evening. I encounter most of them the following day when I am welcomed to the tea factory built by his great-grandfather and watch tea, quite literally, being handmade.
A Darjeeling legend, Rajah has done much for the tea industry of his region. Back in 1988, he turned to organic farming methods, which means no chemical fertilizers were used. Four years later, his became the world’s first fully biodynamic tea estate. “Here in the Himalayas, rare herbs have been in use for more than 500 years for crop protection, so sustainable practices have been in place for some time already,” explains Rajah. “I’ve just built on to that, and now the onerous task of bearing the torch for tea is singularly mine.” This philosophy draws professionals and environmentalists from around the world.
Makaibari spans 670 hectares over six separate ridges, but tea covers only 270 hectares, while woodlands cover twice that area. Rajah even employs 12 forest rangers to monitor the progress of its wildlife. Within the estate, various species of insects, butterflies, birds, and animals (including three species of monkeys) flourish. Elephants were sighted in February 2003 and, more recently, panthers.
The tasting room, adjacent to Rajah’s office, is furnished with a long rickety table on which six cups stand, each filled with tea, squatting adjacent to their mother container bearing the world’s most respected five-petaled flower logo signifying Makaibari Tea Estate. About 3 grams of processed tea is measured into a quarter-pint pot. The pot is filled with water just boiled and left for exactly four minutes. The tea liquor is then poured out into a cup of the same capacity, and the infused leaves are turned out into the cap of the pot for inspection. I sip each tea, using a teaspoon, rolling it around my tongue somewhat akin to tasting wine. First is the Silver Tips Imperial (which is harvested in moonlight and fetched a world-record 52,000 rupees per kilogram at the Beijing World Expo in 2005); then Bai-mu-Dan, a white tea most sought after by the cosmetic industry; the Silver Green; the First Flush; the Second Flush; and finally, the Oolong.
“There is a certain order in which to enjoy Makaibari tea,” Rajah announces. “After their inactivity during winter, our tea bushes rouse in the First Flush. This would, therefore, be the ideal way to begin the day after a good night’s sleep. At midday, when the mind and body begin to sag, the Muscatel of the Second Flush provides stimulus. It embodies the character of the first forces of summer. Midafternoon blues are overcome by the vibrancy of Green Tea, and the weariness of dusk is dispelled with the gentle roselike Autumnals—the harbingers of the season’s end. Finally, a delicate cup of Silver Tips lulls one into a celestial slumber.
“Back in my grandfather’s day,” explains Rajah, “when tea was affordable only to the wealthy, the British used to drink tea relatively cold as the teacups were too hot to handle. Soon saucers accompanied the teacups in an effort to make them easier to hold. However, this was misconstrued as an aid to letting it cool down, so the Brits would pour a little tea into the saucer, then sip from it. Eventually, handles were added to the teacups. Yet, many, like the Iranians, still drink tea from a saucer.”
Cheered by this affirmation that it is indeed OK, yet possibly a little eccentric, to drink from a saucer, I bounce along a potholed road on my way to the Glenburn Tea Estate a few miles away.
Glenburn is a working tea plantation with a magnificent boutique hotel in a location so mystical it could easily be a set from a Harry Potter movie. It’s tacked on to the side of a hill with 1,828 acres of tea bushes growing down a nearly vertical slope to the valley floor and up the opposite hill to the outskirts of Darjeeling.
Although transportation is available, I decide to take the 5-mile downhill hike to the banks of the Rung Dung River, where Sanjay Sharma, the plantation manager, has set up afternoon tea in the shade of a large oak.
Sanjay, a genial fellow with a dapper manner, has the lean bearing and far-off gaze of someone whose world is the outdoors. Whilst tea and cake are being served, he begins explaining the tea-making process.
A lasting visual impression of Darjeeling is the sight of Nepalese women plucking tea—clad in brightly coloured saris, wearing bamboo baskets on their backs, the handles strapped firmly around their foreheads.
Following my gaze, Sanjay interjects, “The reason women do the picking is quite simple. Only small and agile feminine hands and the patient female temperament will do. Plucking tea requires specific skills, in particular, dexterity. Our ladies move between the tea bushes, which are spaced roughly a metre apart (and regularly pruned to a height of 1 1/2 metres, to aide plucking) with amazing swiftness and precision. Using both hands, they gather only the youngest and topmost leaves by snapping the stems with a sharp movement of the index and middle fingers.”
Sanjay points out that a “fine plucking” of the best teas requires the removal of only the terminal bud and the first two leaves below it. The more common teas are produced from a “coarse plucking,” which includes the bud and three, four, or even five leaves. Once the pluckers have filled their baskets, they return to an assembly point where the leaves are inspected and weighed before being transported to the tea-estate factory, a long white building typically occupying the end of a valley and looking somewhat like an Alpine hotel transferred to the tropics.
“The secret of making good-quality tea,” Sanjay continues, “is in the perfection of the various stages in the processing of the raw leaf. Precise timing at every step along the way is vital.” Over another cup of tea, he explains the withering process (which reduces the moisture content by half), roll breaking (a process that breaks up the twisted balls of leaves), and the fermentation—the crucial operation that endows black tea with its colour and subtle flavour.
We decant to a 4x4, which Sanjay fires up, and bound off to the tea factory, where I am shown the final stage of sorting and grading by gradually decreasing sieve sizes, which allows the larger tea leaves to remain at the top and the broken leaves at the bottom.
Back at the lodge, Najma Ahmed, Glenburn’s consummate hostess, greets me warmly at the veranda, which is buried in deep red Mysorium blooms. I am invited for afternoon tea under the eaves, where my fellow guests have congregated in anticipation of the grand silver-service affair, complete with Glenburn-brand Darjeeling tea and a delicious assortment of cakes and scones presented on the finest of china.
Wandering to the edge of the veranda where Sanjay stands, cup in hand, I notice he is looking out across a precipice of Glenburn’s estate. Before us lies a mystic valley in hues of blue and lavender, stitched with wisps of silver mist. I half expect a dragon to swoop into view. Instead, the branches of the surrounding trees hang heavy with birds who jostle with one another for a suitable vantage point from which to drink in this timelessly fetching vista.
Windamere Hotel—The Windamere oozes history, and all 27 of its colonial suites remain exactly as they were back in the old days (there are also 13 conventional guest rooms). My spacious suite consists of twin beds, a lounge, a dressing room (with an additional bed), and a Victorian bathroom (with power shower). When returning from an especially good massage, I discover my chambermaid has visited. She has lit a crackling log fire and turned back my bed covers, slipping a hot-water bottle in between the sheets. It’s a time warp of clean air, delicious local cuisine, homely English charm, and genteel tranquillity. There are deliberately no televisions in the colonial rooms—even the vintage telephones purposely don’t work. However, for guests seeking modern-day trappings, the conventional rooms are all in the 21st century. Beside a sacred shrine where multicoloured prayer flags double as trapezes for the monkeys, the Windamere Hotel, which sits some 2,200 metres above sea level, is the only structure on Observatory Hill and offers one of the world’s most sought-after views—that of soft green hills dwarfed by the snow-capped Himalayas. windamerehotel.com
Makaibari Tea Estates—Makaibari is one of the three tea estates to introduce tea tourism to Darjeeling. The tea estate has home-stay cottages (with Western facilities), which are usually occupied by travellers who plan to stay for several months and have research work to carry out. makaibari.com
Glenburn Tea Estate & Boutique Hotel—Glenburn has two plantation bungalows, each with four spacious suites and a riot of blooms encasing the verandas. I stay at the Burra Plantation Bungalow, the focal point of Glenburn’s hospitality and home to generations of planters. All the suites are decorated in an elegant Cath Kidson style. Most have turn-of-the-century four-poster beds, refurbished teak floors, authentic Victorian baths, and rose or wisteria etchings on the furniture and drapes. Framed still-life oils and old maps are a constant; so too are birds and butterflies, delicately embroidered on the linens. Most of the suites have adjoining rooms and private verandas with long views of the garden. Evenings are for dressing up and start with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres around a bonfire, followed by superb food served at one of India’s most exclusive dinner tables. glenburnteaestate.com
AFTERNOON TEA IN CALCUTTA
On a busy crossroads along Park Street (Calcutta’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue) is Flurys, India’s iconic tearoom. flurysindia.com
It’s a little haven of art deco magnificence with spacious polished interiors, domed ceilings, and a black and white chequered floor. Its interiors are not chintzy, nor are they trendy. What they are is soft chocolate brown and plum with a little gold-leaf detail, floral baskets in cake-icing hues, sloping mirrors, crystal chandeliers, and three-tiered cakes—all resembling the innards of a rich chocolate.
Pink-tied waiters usher patrons to the silk-ribboned tables and pull back marzipan and cocoa striped chairs for the ladies who have all left their diets at the door.
The luxury collection of cakes on the menu is wickedness personified: Deep, New York¬¬¬–style Forest Cheesecake; Triple Chocolate Passion; Blackcurrant Gateaux; Raspberry Ruffle; and Lemon Mimosa—evidently the firm favourite at an adjoining table of IT professionals, who were analysing its three layers of lemon sponge, filled with fresh lemon curd and mascarpone mousse, coated in sponge cubes, and dusted with icing sugar. As I am unable to consume all put before me, leftovers are prettily packed in a sensual pink box with chocolate lettering.
When one survives the bazaars and the oppressive heat, a visit to Flurys is a rite of passage, I’m told. It’s a reminder of a colonial past with a French café twist. Flurys is an event to the locals, a place to be seen. It’s in Calcutta’s DNA and is, without a doubt, India’s most glamorous tearoom.
But if you’ve not yet overdosed on tea, you must rendezvous with other tea lovers at Dolly’s Tea Shop in the Dakshinapan Shopping Complex, Gariahat Road South. The décor is unfussy—the façade depicts a thatched hut, and inside, bright lanterns light up walls lined with old tea chests. But it’s the bizarre tea brews such as Tea Punch (laced with ginger ale and lemonade) and Tutti Frutti Tea (with fruit, ice cream, and jam) that have made Dolly’s the institution it is. Teas for gifting get an individual Dolly touch with jute, cane, bamboo, and ceramic wrapping.
For a slide show of images, click here.
Tea personifies Britishness—be it a mug of tea in a fast food joint in south London or afternoon tea on the lawns of Hyde Park. London-based writer Cindy-Lou Dale considers it ceremonial, an institution, reserved, and noble. But, she says, wherever you take your tea, you need to sit and bide your time. In India, she discovered, it’s a virtuous tradition, revered by the locals.
Editor’s Note: Due to the subject matter of this article and the author’s provenance, we have retained British spellings and vocabulary.