The author wakes to tea in bed in a cottage among green fields of tea before facing a lesson in tea-tasting from the haughty estate owner who appropriately goes by “Rajah.”
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.