Bhutan Wedding and Darjeeling Travelogue, March 2000
Here are some notes from Sebastian's visit to Darjeeling to taste this year's production.
I've come to love the trip down from the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan to Darjeeling and Sikkim. I do it at least once a year, during the spring, fall, or the monsoon season. It takes longer during the monsoon as the landslides are never-ending and the roads canít be repaired quickly enough. Often the only thing to do is to walk around the slide with your luggage and try to get a vehicle on the other side. The taxi drivers know to go to the slide points and so this works well unless there is a series of slides and access is restricted from both sides.
The trip through the Duars is beautiful, filled with small towns and endless tea plantations. The Duars, which means "the gates" and is sometimes spelled Dooars, are the region just below the Himalayas where the rivers run full with the sediment from the young mountains beyond. There are plenty of large trees in the town centers and cows in the middle of the road. This is the area of India I love the most. There are small stalls selling all kinds of food and chai (Indian-style tea -- black tea from a bag, sweet and milky). This is not what Americans know as chai. The northern Indian tea with spices has come to mean chai in the States. Most of India drinks their chai with milk and sugar, no spices. They use Taj Mahal tea bags made from CTC black tea. CTC is short for Cut, Tear, and Curl. This is the process that mows the plants and makes the most possible tea from the leaves. It is very consistent -- and uninteresting, in my view. It looks like small pellets of freeze-dried coffee and does work well for coloring the water quickly. The nuances of the whole leaves are lost as uniformity is the goal. By the end of the day of driving, the road begins to rise up in elevation, to the 5,000-plus feet of Darjeeling, where some wonderfully individual teas are made.
This year I traveled with a wedding party; two friends got married in Bhutan and then again in Darjeeling. The timing was great as I was just in time for first flush.
First Flush describes the first growth of leaves that the tea plant puts forth after the dormant winter period. First Flush tea is generally greener in appearance than the tea produced later in the year and its aroma is more floral. The color of the liquor is lighter. The taste is not too astringent, and it is generally best enjoyed without milk or sugar. This tea is especially popular with the Germans and the Japanese and much of it is bought before it is produced through private contracts with each garden.
I stayed at the Darjeeling Planters Club and spent several days drinking tea from different estates and attending wedding festivities. The day I left there was a transportation strike in Darjeeling -- no vehicles were allowed on the road. I hired a jeep and driver and left town at 4:30am to get to the airport in Bagdogra on the plains of India. Halfway there, I stopped near Mahanadi at the Goomtee tea estate. I had a great breakfast as the sun came up over the valley. I toured the factory and was able to taste their first invoice of the year; they had just started picking and this was the earliest tea possible! Unfortunately all I got was a taste as the rest was sent to Calcutta having been pre-bought for astronomical prices. After returning to the States we tasted more invoices before choosing the tea we that did. I think that you will be pleased and will notice the differences from the second flush we offered last year. We believe that it's a great value for a first flush Darjeeling of this quality.
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