The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Monday, October 15, 2007

Tea


Below is an excerpt of an article in the New York Times, regarding tea in India. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article.

High Tea, India Style

THE Himalayas rose almost out of nowhere. One minute the Maruti Suzuki hatchback was cruising the humid plains of West Bengal, palm trees and clouds obscuring the hills to come; the next it was navigating a decrepit road that squiggled up through forests of cypress and bamboo. The taxi wheezed with the strain of the slopes, and the driver honked to alert unseen vehicles to our presence — one miscalculation, one near miss, could send the little car over the edge and down thousands of feet, returning us to the plains below in a matter of seconds.

For an hour or more, as we climbed ever higher, all I saw was jungle — trees and creepers on either side of us, with hardly a village to break the anxious monotony. Finally, though, somewhere around 4,000 feet, the foliage opened just enough to allow a more expansive view. From the edge of the road, the hills flowed up and down and back up, covered with low, flat-topped bushes that looked like green scales on a sleeping dragon's flanks. Tiny dots marched among the bushes and along the beige dirt tracks that zigzagged up the hillsides — workers plucking leaves from Camellia sinensis, the tea bushes of Darjeeling.

Flying to a remote corner of India and braving the long drive into the Himalayas may seem like an awful lot of effort for a good cup of tea, but Darjeeling tea isn't simply good. It's about the best in the world, fetching record prices at auctions in Calcutta and Shanghai, and kick-starting the salivary glands of tea lovers from London to Manhattan.

In fact, Darjeeling is so synonymous with high-quality black tea that few non-connoisseurs realize it's not one beverage but many: 87 tea estates operate in the Darjeeling district, a region that sprawls across several towns (including its namesake) in a mountainous corner of India that sticks up between Nepal and Bhutan, with Tibet not far to the north.

Each has its own approach to growing tea, and in a nod to increasingly savvy and adventurous consumers, a few have converted bungalows into tourist lodging, while others are accepting day visitors keen to learn the production process, compare styles and improve their palates — a teetotaler's version of a Napa Valley wine tour, but with no crowds.

Still, such a trip requires a certain amount of fortitude, as I discovered when I set out to blaze a trail from estate to estate last March, during the “first flush” harvest, said to produce the most delicate, flavorful leaves. (The second flush, in May and June, is really just as good.) It wasn't just the roads — once marvels of engineering, now tracks of terror that produce daily news reports of fatal plunges — that made the journey a challenge. It was the egos.

The men who run the estates are royalty — and they know it. When visiting their domains, you are at their disposal, not the other way around. At times, this can be frustrating; at others, delightfully frustrating.

I HAD my first such encounter — the latter sort — at Makaibari, an estate just south of the town of Kurseong, around 4,500 feet above sea level. Founded by G. C. Banerjee in the 1840s, during the region's first great wave of tea cultivation, Makaibari remains a family operation, run by Banerjee's great-grandson Swaraj — better known as Rajah.

Rajah is a Darjeeling legend: He's arguably done more for Darjeeling tea than anyone else in the district. Back in 1988, he took the estate organic; four years later, it was fully biodynamic, the first in the world.

Today, it produces the most expensive brew in Darjeeling, a “muscatel” that sold for 50,000 rupees a kilogram (about $555 a pound, at recent exchange rates of around 41 rupees to the dollar) at auction in Beijing last year. You won't often spot his logo — a five-petaled flower that resembles the underside of a tea blossom — on grocery store shelves, but you'll find his leaves in boxes marked Tazo and Whole Foods.

After checking into one of the six no-frills bungalows he has erected for tourists, I marched into the Makaibari factory (opened in 1859), climbed the wooden steps to Mr. Banerjee's office and sat down across the desk from a vigorous patrician with thick gray hair, a clean-shaven angular jaw and black eyebrows in permanent ironic arch. What, he asked, smoking a borrowed cigarette, did I hope to accomplish at Makaibari?

“Well,” I began, as the smell of brewing leaves wafted in from the adjacent tasting room, “I guess I'd like to see how tea is made.”

“Ha! You've come to the wrong place for that,” Mr. Banerjee declared with an eager grin. “This is the place to see how tea is enjoyed!”

Then he poured me a cup — bright but mellow, with a faint fruity sweetness that lingered on my tongue. It was to be the first of many perfect cups.


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