By Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
DARJEELING, India--In the land of noble Himalayan vistas, steep slopes, and delectable teas, indoor heat is not de rigueur in Darjeeling, even in January. Unprepared, I layered: wool socks, jogging pants underneath hiking pants, a cashmere button up sweater my mother gave me one Christmas 30 years ago, a tee shirt, and a somewhat dressy tunic I had brought for an interview. I wore this every day. For three days. But there are worse things than a roll-y-pol-y silhouette (you'd have to ask those who saw me if this is strictly true).
I went to Darjeeling seeking truth in tea. Tea was courtesy of the British; no, it was the Chinese; wait, no it was already in India before all the hoopla and tea cozies. I hoped the beautiful vistas and proximity to ancient homages to God would help me sort this out. Beauty and grace I found, in abundance, plus, there was a tiny steam-powered train. And cheese toast.
Before I tiptoed through the tea bushes, I might have considered a reading of tea leaves to get to the root of things. It turned out, other information was at hand.
What to know: According to Sara Sohail in the Madras Courier on February 5, "Although the world came to know of tea first from the Chinese, it is a fact that (India's) Assamese tribes like the Singphos were used to drinking tea prepared in their native ways. This tea flowered wild in Upper Assam and was popular there; the locals believed it had memory-boosting powers."
The British, importing tea from China and looking for ways to circumvent the costs of doing so, and their Scottish agent Robert Bruce, "discovered" the tea plants growing in Upper Assam jungles with a local, Beesa Gam's, help in 1821, according to Sohail in the Courier and Pradip Baruah in Science and Culture. The British thought the Assamese "near savages," Sohail says (and yes, we may all inhale sharply at this bit of Colonial-era snark), and imported tea experts from China to meld the "wild" Indian tea with the cultivated Chinese variety. By 1840, tea produced for British export in Assam was "acknowledged as superior," and by 1850s, tea estates were establishing in Darjeeling.
One hundred fifty-five years later in 2014, Silver Tips Imperial tea from Malaibari Tea Estate in Kurseong sold for $1850 per kg, or $45 a pot at the Ritz Carlton in Tokoyo, according to the Times of India. It was the most expensive tea sold in India at the time.
I sipped Silver Tips Imperial at the Makaibari tea factory, strictly for research purposes of course, during a tasting session. I will say the notes and undertones were delicate, and for me, judging the qualities of tea is as intricate as the practice of tasting wines: nose near the liquid to inhale deeply, a slurping noise to oxygenate the sip, some contemplation. And then, again. I know, I know, you're thinking that was heavy lifting in four layers of clothing, but I fought the good fight and had two cups.
My definitive thought? Teas in Darjeeling are a matter of taste. As in, the finest teas in the world are grown here: delicate and aromatic and really lovely when produced in bio-dynamic soils in sync with natural cycles. The process of plucking and drying the leaves, thus determining if the end result will be green, white or black tea, is synchronized with events such as the full moon at Makaibari. The tea factory and estate, recently sold to Luxmi Group, was established in 1859 by the family of Swaraj Kumar (Rajah) Banerjee, who pioneered bio-dynamic organic practices for tea in 1988 before it was popular to think of such things.
Forests wrap steep slopes of tea bushes at Makaibari. I hadn't realized how soothing the arrangement was until we left. As we went down the mountains, I saw that each tea estate we passed had more rows of regimented bushes and near-perfect spaces between them than the last. But at on Makaibari's 1,573 acres, tea grows on 550 acres due to a love of trees and intentional planning. Insect-repellents in the form of plant species unpleasant to bugs are allowed to grow along the edges and sometimes in the middle of tea gardens. The workers, too, have been nurtured through programs of day care, medical care, and education for their children.
When I spoke with Banerjee at his new location in Siliguri, with no rolling tea hills in sight, I expected some reminiscences and reflections on past truly ground-breaking accomplishments, but his robust energy is now focused on encouraging bio-dynamic practices with 40,000 small tea growers of North Bengal with a venture he calls Rimpocha. His focus is soils, and, as I can only agree from observation on my far-away Missouri farm, Banerjee sees the wealth of the planet resting in 2-3 inches of topsoil worldwide. He has embedded knowledge of the land and the people who work it. Large scale tea operations seem to be the trend, but in that large scale environment, hand crafted, gently harvested teas are still rewarded in the market as something loved.
Now, back in Kolkata, it's warming up to summer. Fans are being cranked up and my trigger finger is itching to hit the air conditioning switch. Winter-sminter I say. I have not worn my multi-piece sequentially layered Darjeeling outfit since returning.
Travel tips in the land of tea
What to see: If you are new to the area, in Darjeeling, take a walk to Observatory Hill and the Mahakal Temple and see Hindu and Buddhist shrines nestled together, prayer wheels, and fluttering
flags. Ring the bell as you leave to release prayers into the world. Check out St. Andrews and the Ghum Monastery to get another taste of the spiritual roots of the area. Take the two-hour Toy Train (with UNESCO World Heritage status) for a round trip to Ghum from Darjeeling on the Darjeeling Himilayan Railway Batasia Loop through drowsy vistas of impressive Himalayan slopes on the narrow-gauge track. It will be a delightful half day and you can stop in Ghum to take a later train back to Darjeeling (which we did not know and
made an memorably ungainly sprint uphill to catch the return). When you're ready to go down the hill, book a car and driver to go to Kurseong and visit the organic tea estate and factory of Makaibari Tea Estate.
Where to eat: In Darjeeling, we loved Kunga's for their delicious soups and warm-even-in-January interior, and Keventers (my niece ordered the slightly spicy cheese toast), where you might go upstairs for the views and nostalgic architecture, and Glenary's for tasty bakery items with coffee.
When to go: Fall and spring are ideal. There are fewer crowds in January, but dress for the weather!
Where to stay: In Darjeeling in warmer weather, I recommend Dekeling Hawk's Nest for great views, moderate pricing, pretty outdoor seating, sweet staff, plus a hearty breakfast that includes Tibetan bread. For a beautiful property with old world charm and high tea, the Elgin in Darjeeling. Near Malaibari Tea Estate in Kurseong, for charm with a quirky side (wonderful old photos, small but comfortable lodge-like rooms, odd ramps in place of staircases), and an accommodating helpful staff, the Cochrane.
*Nina Mukerjee Furstenau is a Fulbright-Nehru Global Scholar in based in Kolkata, India, in 2018-19.