- Tea-tasting An art perfected gradually, a taster’s highly attuned taste buds register even subtle shades of scent, taste and nuance of different teas. Tasters swirl the liquor in their mouth, spit it out, and taste several samples at one go. Then they certify them ‘dry’, ‘biscuity’ ‘hungry’, ‘light’ etc.
On the Tea Trail
- Ambootia tea tour: Right now guests can visit only Kochrane Place lodge, as the focus is on production and export rather than tourism. Tourist attractions include a Shiv temple and Balason River, compost manufacturing and biodynamic cultivation. A full conducted tour costs Rs 500.
- Makaibari tea tour: The garden has its own forest cover, with six tiers of forests, with wild animals and birds. Makaibari created the tea known as Silver Tip leaf, which is picked in full moon nights. Accommodation is in stone houses, with four luxury bedrooms, and a spacious living room with an iron-and-burnt-clay fireplace. Homestays are arranged by workers in their houses. More details are on the gardens’ websites.
“The magical mystery tour is waiting to take you away...”, the distant strains of The Beatles waft in with the wind. We are in a glass house atop a hill in Kurseong, in the eastern Himalayas, as the soft, early morning light streams in. A group of people from across the globe are gathered around a chai bar (tea counter). The green-gold liquid called Silver Tip that swirls gently in our transparent tea cups is soaked in that golden light. “Close your eyes,” a voice commands. “And drink up. But before, do make a wish.”
That is how the tea tour at Makaibari Tea Estate begins. As far as Rajah Banerjee, the owner of Makaibari, is concerned, if at the end of a trip through his tea garden you don’t feel you’ve had a magical, mysterious and mystical experience of sorts, you haven’t really experienced anything. The dry dictionary definition of tea tourism—as “a journey that takes you through the process of tea manufacture”—he dismisses from his presence with a scornful wave. Pouring you a steaming cup of aromatic brew from a glass kettle that he has been moving in a circular motion, he insists that tea tourism “is nothing less than an enchanted journey of serendipitous discoveries”. Closing his eyes meditatively, as though in contemplation of the cosmic, he reveals that if you undertake a tea tour you may find love and luck, happiness and health.
The colonial government started promoting tea tourism way back in the late nineteenth century. By then, markets across the world had opened up for high-quality Indian teas from north Bengal and Assam, and foreign buyers and investors were interested in the process of tea production. Darjeeling and its environs, the original tea country, was already a tourist destination because of its breathtaking natural beauty. It was also famed for the summer cottages of British officials eager to escape the plains. The region, of course, produces the world’s finest teas and has the best kept gardens. Planters and estate owners welcomed tourists, cashing in on a lucrative business option.
March-April is the first flush season. That’s when fresh tea leaves begin to appear after the dry winter spell in the region.
In Kurseong, at the heart of tea country, the speciality of the two tea estates, Makaibari and Ambootia, is given out as being “organic” and “biodynamic”. Ambootia Tea Estate, which owns 11 gardens in Darjeeling, including its largest in Kurseong, does not yet offer a full-fledged tea tourism package for visitors, but has a tie-up with a local tourist lodge, Kochrane Place, and allows its guests to visit their tea gardens and factories through conducted tours. “These tours are designed to simultaneously provide our guests an opportunity to witness the process of tea production as well as to take in the sheer beauty of the Darjeeling hills,” says Ravinder Kang, manager of Kochrane Place. Ambootia Tea Estate, which stretches across 350 hectares, expansive by Darjeeling standards, is the world’s largest biodynamic farm and has won the ‘Model Farm’ award from the United Nations. When asked about biodynamic farming, Krishnendu Chatterjee of the Ambootia Group lays it on thick: “We follow the principle that the earth moves in rhythmic tandem with the rest of the universe, including other planets and stars. The position of the moon, the sun and other stars and planets are taken into consideration at every stage, from cultivation and harvesting to plucking. The lunar influence on water has been scientifically proven. Soil quality and condition is likewise controlled by the forces of the universe.” Ambootia tea, in short, is grown in perfect sync with cosmic rhythms!
No wonder, understanding tea takes time. Tourists who wish to witness the entire process have to be prepared to spend considerable time—real enthusiasts can spend an entire season of plucking and handling, withering, rolling, drying and, finally, tasting tea. Others content with watching a day of tea manufacturing do so beginning March-April—the ‘first flush’ season. That’s when the first fresh tea—a bright green bud ensconced inside two dark green leaves on top of the plant—begins to appear after the dry winter.
Seventy-year-old Laxmi Pradhan, along with Sarita Lama and Renu Chetri—employees housed in the estate—are already out in one of the lush green fields that dot Ambootia, and in friendly contest to pluck the freshest shoots. The younger women gently tease Laxmi for being slow. “At your age, I was the best plucker ever,” she brags in answer. Laxmi goes on to demonstrate how to place the basket on the head and pluck the choicest leaves.
The next part of the tour takes tourists to the shed where the tea is weighed and the substandard shoots weeded out. Then there’s the factory, where the tea is laid out and dehydrated using blowers before being poured into and passed through a chute, where the leaves are broken down in the final stage of production. Ambootia has a special attraction. Being an organic farm, it has a vast a compost production site located at the base of its tea hills. “Water is scarce in the mountains. The valley taps rainwater. We also rely on seepage water from cracks in the rocks which we then tap into containers,” explains Jay Guha Neogi, who looks after plantation at Ambootia, and is a sought-after tour guide.
“This is an extraordinary experience,” smiles Gloria Yuen, a Canadian college student who is on a tea tour at Makaibari with two friends. The Makaibari tour has provisions for ‘home stay’, in which guests live with local families (Makaibari employees) within the estate. Sevan Bhujel, a driver at Makaibari, says, “Every season we welcome a new guest who comes here to learn about tea. We give them a room but they share our meals and have tea with us.” His wife Bhumika has taught some of her guests how to make local delicacies.
It’s a great learning holiday, agrees Lindsay Goodwin, an American food writer with a special interest in tea and coffee, who has twice taken the Makaibari tea tour.
Time spent in a tea estate is rewarding. It’s time spent well—the trekking aside, the processes of plucking, pruning, and tasting. “And making wishes,” says 19-year-old Martha Wells from the US. The Shiva temple in the Makaibari estate is known as a favourable place to ask wishes. Martha is on a one-year gap period before college starts and has chosen to spend it “tea touring” in India as it was a unique idea. So, has it been the magical mystery tour that it was touted to be? “So far, yes,” Martha chuckles. “Can you believe it? I am actually waiting for my wish to come true!” The astute Rajah Banerjee does give you a timeframe within which your wish is supposed to come true. Only a visit to the Kurseong hills can put his claim to the test. After that, it depends on your karma.