Darjeeling tea party – India’s best cuppa

We reckoned that the menu and the cooking had not changed much since the British left India in 1948. The location on a rise overlooking the town is superb, with mountain views on all sides.

September 17, 2011 23:33
Afternoon tea at the Windamere Hotel

Afternoon tea at the Windamere Hotel 311. (photo credit: Courtesy Sara Manobla)

DARJEELING, India – Waiting on the platform for the train to Darjeeling, we made a beeline for the “chai wallah,” the tea vendor who can be found at every railway station throughout India. The chai he brews, called masala chai, is a sweet, thick, milky beverage, spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, perhaps cardamom. The mixture of tea leaves, water and milk is boiled up in a vast cauldron together with the aromatic spices and plenty of sugar, left to simmer throughout the day, and served to the customer by the chai wallah pouring it through a strainer into the cup. It was a refreshing and fortifying drink for the journey ahead.

The ride to Darjeeling begins in the plains, passing through lush jungle forests. As the train climbs into the Himalayan foothills the view opens up, revealing the plantations where the world famed Darjeeling tea is grown.

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Afternoon tea was already a popular institution in England in the 18th century, made from tea imported from China. In an attempt to break the Chinese monopoly the British East India Company introduced tea into India in the 1830s, and British colonists began to cultivate tea plantations, first in Assam then in Darjeeling.

However tea drinking within India only took off when the British-owned India Tea Association launched a campaign to encourage factories and mines to provide tea breaks for their workers. It also supported independent chai wallahs throughout the vast railway system. Today some 70 percent of India’s tea production is consumed in India, and masala chai is firmly established as India’s favorite drink, one of the enduring legacies of the British Raj.

The English style of tea drinking, then and to this day, is very different. The 4 o’clock afternoon tea ritual directs that the tea leaves are spooned into the teapot (previously warmed) and boiling water is then poured onto the leaves to produce a strong, aromatic infusion. After waiting three minutes for the brew to develop flavor, tea is poured, and small amounts of milk and sugar are added to the clear brown liquid in each porcelain cup.

And this, it so happened, was the formula which produced our next cuppa when we reached Darjeeling. We checked into the Windamere, a nostalgic hostelry left over from the Raj-era, just in time for afternoon tea. The furnishings in our bedroom said it all: chintz curtains, framed photographs and letters on the wall describing polo matches, boar hunts, dinner at the officers’ mess, visits by the Viceroy, and furniture dating back to the 1920s and ‘30s. Originally a boarding house for bachelor British tea planters, the Windamere was converted into a hotel in the 1930’s, and is now listed as a Heritage Hotel of India.

Afternoon tea lived up to our expectations. We were offered cucumber sandwiches, sponge cake, and scones with jam and clotted cream, washed down by a pot of Darjeeling tea, immaculately served by a whitegloved attendant, with frilly apron and cap. Windamere terms are full board only, so during our stay there we had to consume the three meals plus tea provided daily. Breakfast was porridge, eggs and bacon, fruit and poor coffee. Lunch and dinner were adequate but boring, so we graded the kitchen as 6 out of 10. We reckoned that the menu and the cooking had not changed much since the British left India in 1948. But the candle-lit dining room was charming, as were the comfortable sitting rooms, filled with books and pictures from a bygone era, and the roomy bedrooms with a wood fire lit in the grate on a cool evening, and hot water bottles provided in winter. The location on a rise overlooking the town is superb, with mountain views on all sides.

Darjeeling has much to offer the visitor. Top of the list is the spectacular view of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain, which dominates the horizon. We crept out at dawn to Observatory Hill, a short walk from the Windamere Hotel, to view the sun rising, a pink flush on the mountain’s snow-covered peak. Organized tours take the visitor by taxi to Tiger Hill, a higher location, with a covered shelter and hot drink thrown in to counter the chilly morning air. Other attractions include the Darjeeling Zoo, and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, a training center for would-be Everest beaters. It has a fascinating museum with historic artifacts from the ascents of Everest and other Himalayan highs. In the courtyard there is a statue of Sherpa Tensing, who was the first, together with Sir Edmund Hillary, to reach the Everest summit. Darjeeling with its multi-ethnic mix is a great jumping-off point for the neighboring countries of Nepal, Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan. We visited the Tibetan Refugee Selfhelp Center, for refugees who fled Tibet following the Chinese invasion of 1957.

And then there is tea tourism, a new attraction for visitors to the tea growing areas of India. The climate in the hills is pleasant, and the steep slopes of shimmering green tea plantations stretch to the horizon. Visitor centers offer tours of the fields and the factories, and explain how the tea is produced. On a number of estates the owners have transformed the original planter’s bungalow into an up-market guest house or boutique hotel. Our choice was Glenburn, near Darjeeling, for a few days of Raj-style luxury and a crash course in tea-lore. The estate was started by a Scottish tea company in 1859 and is now owned by the fourth generation of one of India’s tea planting dynasties, the Prakash family.

Driving through the Glenburn estate we could see the pickers, squatting between the rows of tea bushes, each with a basket strapped to his or her shoulders. The women, nimble fingered, pick faster than the men, and bring in a higher yield. It is backbreaking work, and the pickers work long shifts. The estates, originally established by British tea planters, have been taken over by large companies, or are privately Indian owned. The estate owners are in effect a semi-autonomous feudal authority for the district, providing services and running the lives of the local villagers who work for them. Nowhere in India is the great divide between rich and poor more in evidence.

Guests at Glenburn are pampered from the moment of arrival. This was truly a “Jewel in the Crown” experience. We were greeted by our hostess Neena, and served a welcoming cuppa on the verandah, with its view of Kanchenjunga on the horizon. The complimentary laundry service dealt with our huge bag of dirty linen, returning it the next day in a pristine pile. The rooms are gorgeous, each a suite with sitting area, superb bathroom and private verandah, elegantly furnished in understated country style. The meals were imaginative and tasty, breakfast served in the garden under a pomela tree and lunch on the verandah. For dinner, after an aperitif on the lawn, the guests gathered round the candle- lit mahogany table in the dining room, a house party of 14, for a congenial evening of civilized discourse and delicious food and wine. Except for us, all the guests that week were Indian, and included the owner and his family.

In addition to food and drink and relaxing on the verandah, Glenburn offers a flexible program of sightseeing activities. Ours included a gentle walk through the tea gardens encircling the house, with a guide who gave us detailed information on every imaginable aspect of the tea bush and its cultivation. Hikes and excursions are arranged for visitors in accordance with their energy levels. Chauffeur driven transport is available at all times, and this includes transfer to the hotel and to the next destination. One morning Neena sent us off on an expedition through the plantation, a long hike with views of tea gardens, villages and the distant mountains, down to the river which is the border with Sikkim. We cooled off with a swim and paddle in the shallow, fast-running waters, and together with our fellow guests enjoyed a sumptuous picnic lunch, brought from the house by jeep, prepared and served al fresco by at least half a dozen servants. The cost of staying at Glenburn is currently 11,000 rupees, (approx. $230) per person per day, sharing a room. Except for drinks from the bar, everything as described above was included, and tea (or coffee or soft drinks) available at all time. The staff’s service and readiness to meet the visitor’s needs was efficient, warm and welcoming.

Our tea education concluded with a visit to the Glenburn Tea Factory. We saw the tea pickers coming in to have their baskets weighed after the early morning shift.

Their loads are tipped onto long benches for “withering,” to reduce the moisture and soften the leaves. This is the first stage of the process which converts the freshly picked green leaves into black tea. Next comes “rolling,” which takes place in the cool, dark fermentation room. This releases the essential oils and gets the fermentation-oxidization started. Then at a pre-determined moment, the fermentation process is halted and the leaves passed through a hot air dryer, the moment which determines the taste and quality of the tea. The finished product is sorted and graded, and packed into plywood tea chests, lined with aluminium foil. Over the years this process has been refined and developed to suit a wide variety of teas grown in different climates or at different altitudes. But the basics remain unchanged.

Finally the tea-tasting, a ceremony every bit as serious as a wine-tasting session in Burgundy. The plantation manager explained to us with great passion the characteristics and individual flavors of Whole Leaf, Silver Needle, Golden Tips, Oolong, and Flowery Orange Pekoe, the precise timing for picking Spring Flush, Summer Flush or Monsoon Flush, and the qualities that make First Flush Darjeeling the world’s costliest tea. We sipped and sniffed and cleaned the palate with dry biscuits, were duly impressed with the skill and dedication that is invested in producing these delicate flavors, and swore we would never again use a teabag.

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