Sunday, May 4, 2014

Darjeeling: All About the Tea

Darjeeling town is at an elevation 2135 meters (7,000 feet) spread over a steep mountain ridge with a spectacular backdrop view of some of the Himalayan peaks, all snow covered.  A rather gorgeous place to hang out and considering the altitude, a welcome relief in temperature from the lowlands.  My hotel room cost $10 and was very comfortable with plenty of warm blankets and 24 hour hot water, something not always available in the mountains.

Here, I must sidetrack to a subject not often talked about; squat toilets.  If the idea of touching your own
shit with your hands makes you squeamish, just skip this paragraph.   I am a little concerned that I became so cozy with wiping this way so easily, but cultures have done it this way for many thousands of years.  Only the higher-end restaurants and hotels have western toilets and even with a western toilet, you use your hand.   The reality is that you won't have a choice when traveling in India unless you never get out of high class hotels.  My problem with this is that most often there is no soap to wash your hands after using the toilet.  Using hand sanitizer is the most logical solution.  As a side note, it is the custom in India to use your right hand to eat (Indians eat with their hands), conduct business, or offer someone something.  To use your left hand is considered dirty, leftys be damned. If you have more interest in this subject than you really should have, learn more at:

Tea growing is the claim to fame for Darjeeling, so I thought it might be a good idea to do some independent study on the subject.  What I found out is very much like the nuances found in wine, although I found that I am better at discerning the differences in wine tasting than in tea.  In simple terms tea becomes stronger in taste with each later picking of the season, but the best tea comes from the very first pick, called "flush".  First flush demands the highest price other than "white tea".  White tea comes from the first flush, but is not fermented (oxidized).  It is simply dried right after picking.  The process for black tea is a short drying period after picking, then it goes into a "roller" machine that breaks it up for the next step which is oxidation.  It is allowed to sit and turn dark, but it is a misnomer to name this process as fermentation, but nevertheless this is the term used. To stop the "fermentation" warm air is pumped up through the drying tables to complete the drying.  The tea is now ready to pack and sell.  The pictured tea plantation and factory produces a good quality tea for export only to high-end retailers, one of which is Harrods in London.  If one buys Darjeeling tea in Harrods, it came from this plantation and yes, all that background of rolling hills is planted in tea.  There are 61 principal tea plantations in Darjeeling.

The light tea in the champagne flute is white tea.  The light colored tea in the teacup is "first flush".  I couldn't tell the difference.  They are both so light and subtle with nice tea flavor, but you would never add milk or sugar which would completely obliterate the flavor.

It was a joy to visit tea houses and sample a few of the hundreds on offer and to see in the factories just how it is processed.  When learning about and tasting tea, one becomes relaxed (it must be the effect of the tea) and the mountain views become the focus of the moment.

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