Magical, Mystical Darjeeling:
Taking Tea in the Clouds
By Amelia C. Levy
In the August issue, we began to tell the fascinating story of Darjeeling, an exquisite tea grown in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas in Darjeeling, India. This month we conclude our report on a tea that, like its majestic surroundings, is timeless.
of the men and women who work in the gardens are of Nepalese or Tibetan descent, and those are the languages heard spoken and sung in the hills.
Due to a Plantation Act enacted in India, the workers are provided with a daily wage, free housing, subsidized food rations, free healthcare and of course, free tea. Gardens maintain housing for primary schools, which are run by the government and also free. Child labor is not permitted by law, and women receive a paid maternity leave and creche (day care) services.
New Ideas for Growth
Any new tea bushes in Darjeeling are grown from clones or from grafts with one another. The British who first planted tea in the area used seeds, but young plants grown from seeds are vulnerable to droughts, so other methods are now considered more efficient. However, a number of these original tea bushes survive to this day: it is common to find plants that are over 100 years old. These plants can still produce tea, but a tea plant is known for producing best from around 20 years to up to 60 or 70 years. After that age, a lot of work is usually done to keep it producing at cost-effective rates. A method to deal with under-producing old plants that is widely practiced in Darjeeling is uprooting and replanting of the trees. It is a very expensive undertaking, and it takes the replants 5-7 years to gestate, or, become productive again.
An exciting new solution to this problem has been discovered: The Tumor Removal Prune (TRP), invented by Zafar Ahmad Ali, manager of Castleton Tea Estate, located in the Kurseong South Valley of Darjeeling. When Ali became manager of the garden in 1999, Ali set out to uproot a section of the garden. The bushes were old, diseased and extremely low yielding. Ali was surprised to find that the bushes actually had a healthy and intact rooting system. When pruning an unhealthy bush in 2002 he found a huge mass of an entangled tumor-like lump at the base, or “collar” of the bush. The “tumor” weighed 70kgs (160 lbs)! After digging deeper, he found that healthy and strong roots existed below. Ali cut the healthy-but-hidden roots below the tumor and replanted them. Root tips were kept above the ground, mulching and other procedures were followed, and about two months later, brand new shoots began to appear. He reproduced the results many times, and dubbed the procedure the Tumor Removal Prune (TRP).
This discovery was truly a success: with a TRP, the plants yield usable tea in a very short time, the procedure costs less than half of uprooting and replanting, and the original muscatel flavor of the quality bushes are preserved. He had discovered that the age of Darjeeling tea plants was not entirely the problem that Darjeeling planters had long thought it to be. New methods of pruning and cultivating were the solution.
Ali has given a seminar for other Darjeeling tea planters on the method, and it has generated much interest in Darjeeling and beyond. Many of his customers truly enjoy the tea that comes from the plants to which he has performed the Tumor Removal Prune.
Leaders in Sustainability: Makaibari and Ambootia
Many gardens in Darjeeling are either organic or are in the process of conversion to organic. Even gardens which are not certified organic often use homemade, natural compost for fertilizer and herbs as pesticides. India’s native Neem tree is used for both: oil extracted from its seeds controls pests, and its “seed cake” (the residue of the seeds after oil extraction) keeps soil in its best condition for growing.
Two gardens that stand out among the crowd with their extreme dedication to agricultural and social sustainability are Makaibari and Ambootia Tea Estates.
Makaibari, which literally means “Maize Land,” is located in the Kurseong Valley. Established in 1859, and made up of seven villages, owner Rajah Banerjee says of Makaibari: “It’s like a small kingdom.” Makaibari follows a system of planting whose goal is the achievement of balance through the principles of nature, based on the theory of Biodynamic Agriculture, created by Dr. Rudolf Steiner in 1924. The principles of this theory emphasize “living soil,” with the farm existing as a holistic organism. The goal of a biodynamic farm is to be able to support a balance of people, plants and animals. This is done in a very methodical way. There is careful timing to planting, weeding, fertilizing and harvesting in order to coincide with the lunar and celestial phases. Specially made preparations are added to compost to preserve the microorganisms that live in the soil so that they can make nutrients available to the plants. Soil is seen as a living organism in itself and each preparation acts like a part of the body’s life functions: for instance, stinging nettle is said to act like the heart, chamomile flower like the intestines, and dandelion like the respiratory system.
Makaibari follows a form of integrated forest management called a permaculture in which the tea bush is part of a multi-tier system of trees and plants typical of a sub-tropical rainforest, as opposed to a monoculture - a farm that grows only one crop. Makaibari retains 70% of its entire area under forest cover.
Due to the harmony with nature created, many species of animals thrive here including endangered panthers, tigers, birds, butterflies, snakes, spiders and many others, feeding off of each other as part of the natural food chain.
Makaibari has maintained a system for creating sustainable human environments. Each family on the estate is provided with their own cows, which they use for milk and manure. The manure is used as fertilizer in their own kitchen gardens and is also collected in a unit or “balloon” in their backyards that converts its methane into cooking fuel called “bio-gas.” This system doesn’t just benefit the environment and help save the forests. It also decreases the workload of the women who otherwise have to get up hours before they start plucking to bring firewood back to their houses. Surplus milk and manure can be sold outside the estate.
It is indeed this culture at Makaibari that not only liberates the land, but its people - especially women. Makaibari has 450 children and currently maintains a negative birthrate. One woman supervisor has 20 men working under her - an extreme rarity on tea estates. Makaibari’s Ladies’ Joint Body is a group formed by elected members who are in charge of allocating funds to projects and programs on the farm. The group of outspoken and intelligent women have voted in the past to have a computer center built and on issues of childcare.
Banerjee knows the people of his estate and their children by name. The way they beam at him speaks a thousand words about their well-being, and the success of his system. When children pass he jokes with them, or chides them in a friendly manner for missing a piece of plastic on the ground: they can trade the litter in for a reward of candy.
Makaibari also has the distinction of selling the most expensive tea in the world: in 2003 Makaibari Silver Tips (Imperial) were sold for Rs18,000 (around US$400) per kilo.
Ambootia Tea Estate was established in 1861 and taken over by cousins Sanjay and Anil Bansal in 1986. They also follow the biodynamic system, with its strong emphasis on soil, environment and community health and well being.
Innovations in manufacture can also be observed at Ambootia’s extremely modern factory, renovated in 2001. Their factory’s ceilings are now covered with aluminum, and are equipped with dust extraction machines to keep dust out of the factory (the only ones in Darjeeling). An elevator brings leaf up to the second floor to the withering room, greatly reducing workers’ labor (they usually carry baskets on their heads), as well as decreasing damage of leaf, and increasing efficiency. Carts are used to transport tea across the factory floor, decreasing labor intensity as well. Their factory also contains dehumidifiers, one of very few in Darjeeling.
Serving Up Darjeeling to the World
How to Brew A Great Darjeeling|
Brewing a tasty cup of Darjeeling is a delicate process. One must be very exact: infuse for too long or use too much tea and a cup that would otherwise be extraordinary can be ruined. And the right formula varies from flush to flush and according to style of manufacture.
Anupa Mueller of Silver Tips Tea Room in Tarrytown, New York, graciously provided us with her secrets to making that cup of Darjeeling just right.
Measurements for a 6-7 oz cup. Use water brought to the first boil only.
Type of Tea
||Measurement of Tea
||1 scant teaspoon
|2nd Flush|| 1 generous teaspoon|| 3 1/2 minutes|
|Autumnal|| 1 generous teaspoon|| 4 minutes|
|Green|| 1 generous teaspoon|| 2 minutes|
|White|| larger leaf: approx. by sight|| 3-4 mins.|
“Piyo more chai,” which is half in Hindi and half in English, meaning “Drink more tea” is part of a general marketing campaign by the Tea Board of India, a branch of the Indian government’s Ministry of Commerce. The Tea Board of India assists the whole industry financially, helping to fund nurseries, processing, marketing efforts, and education of managers.
While the promotion of tea within India is important and may hold a future, especially with the nation’s developing economy, the Tea Board as well as the Darjeeling Planter’s Association know that if they want Darjeeling to survive, their marketing efforts must focus elsewhere. “Darjeeling tea is a premium tea, and there is no market here for that,” says Amal Roy Choudhury, deputy director of Tea Development (Plantation) Tea Boards. In fact, 90% of all Darjeeling grown is exported, constituting 4-5% of all exports.
Germany and Japan, now Darjeeling’s largest markets, are extremely enchanted with Darjeeling’s treasures. Two generations ago, Darjeeling was far more popular in the U.K, but times have changed, and now much more is sold in the rest of Europe than in England.
A few batches (ghani) of manufactured tea make up an “invoice” of about 100 kilos. Often some are strong, some are lighter, and can be blended to customize a particular taste. Each invoice has a number, and the average tea garden’s invoices are labeled around 1 though 20. With traceability and single-estate identity on the minds of many modern consumers, it is important to know that they can now be informed of the particular estate, flush, and even the invoice number of the Darjeeling that they purchase. Perhaps this is one key to Darjeeling’s lagging sales in the U.S., where the backstory of products is becoming as important than the product itself. Says Seth: “We don’t have a strong market base in the U.S., and we’re trying to cultivate that. Because the American market is so small compared to the European market, compared to the Japanese market, compared to the Middle East market. Because all along the myth has been America is a coffee-drinking country, so we want to shatter that.” According to the Tea Board of India, sales to the U.S. are increasing, gradually, due to growing interest in organic products. It is awareness of these special teas, he says, that is missing in the U.S., and is why the increase has been so slight.
The majority of Darjeeling tea is sold through public auctions each week in Kolkata, which have been held since 1861. But these days some tea growers find they can fetch a better price by working directly with the buyer and cutting out the middleman. This sometimes affords the importer the chance to book teas before they are even produced.
One very successful effort Darjeeling has been making to cater to new consumer market niches in the past few years is to produce teas other than black teas. At least some tea is being manufactured as white, green, or oolong in virtually all of the tea estates, with some also creating hand-rolled and compressed teas. Darjeeling’s green teas are better from the monsoon season, says Banerjee, and white tea is best from the end of the first flush or autumn, (and reportedly very well liked in the U.K.). With consumer interest growing in new and different types of teas, especially those with health benefits, Darjeeling could have an extremely bright future - if it can get the word out.
Where the Past Meets the Future
One of many stories told in the hills of Darjeeling is about tea that perhaps grew wild there many years ago. A Tibetan monk was travelling far and wide in the area, and he became exhausted, so he sat under a tree to rest. He plucked a leaf off and began chewing on it. He found it gave him great energy, and he was exceedingly pleased. He did not know he had just discovered a tea plant (which can grow as high as 10 feet tall when not pruned). He exclaimed “Runglee rungliot,” which means “thus far and no further.” When drinking a cup of Darjeeling, one can’t help but feel this way also.
Tea & Coffee - October/November, 2004
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