From seed to auction, a detailed look at the growing, selling and drinking of India’s “champagne of tea.”
There is no leaf unturned in Barcelona-based food journalist Koehler’s (Spain: Recipes and Traditions, 2013, etc.) exposition on the growing of Darjeeling tea. Darjeeling is cultivated only in 87 tea estates along a slender spine of land in northeast India. It is an “orthodox” black tea, meaning it is unmixed—withered, rolled, fermented and fired in the traditional method by hand. Since there is so little of it—it takes 22,000 handpicked shoots to produce one kilo of Darjeeling—in comparison to green or other kinds of tea, the prices it fetches at auction are enormous. Koehler explores the history of chai (Hindi for tea), from the beginnings in China to the surprisingly late (19th-century) experimentation by the British to figure out if tea shoots brought from China would grow in northern India. At that time, the East India Company moved into the steep, misty hills of Darjeeling, and the first British tea estates prospered. Koehler chronicles his visits to the oldest select tea estates, such as Makaibari, Castleton and Ambootia, noting how he began to understand what makes this tea so singular: the ideal climate and terroir and the “human element”—i.e., the need to be plucked by hand. Women do the plucking and get paid so little that absenteeism runs 30 percent. In a deeply researched work organized by the tea’s growing season, from “first flush” through “monsoon flush” through “autumn flush,” Koehler explores the initiative by some of the estates to go organic. Yet the combined crises of labor unrest, climate change and a political threat of independence from West Bengal spell a serious threat to the vulnerable Darjeeling tea.
A thorough account that tracks the growing and processing of this fine tea against the wider changes in today’s India.