Winston Churchill wrote of Seven Pillars of Wisdom: 'It ranks with the greatest books ever written in the English language. As a narrative of war and adventureâ?¦it is unsurpassable.â?
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Such has been the ‘Romance’ of tea that despite its rather recent vintage in India—just a little over a century-and-a-half—a lot has already been written on the development and practice of tea drinking in India, and indeed globally. In Darjeeling, Jeff Koehler revisits the theme, his focus firmly on just the rather small hill town established by the British in what was then southern Sikkim. Koehler’s description sets the tone for a detailed ride through various aspects of what constitutes Darjeeling tea. He looks at its genesis under imperial rule, and the role opium played in the tea trade with China, the original home of tea export to Britain. The history of Darjeeling tea is intertwined with the history of the region, and people such as Dr. Archibald Campbell, who effectively started the modern town and first planted tea in the area, are brought alive. Chapters on various tea estates and their passionate owners are replete with anecdotes and hark to an era when tea became ingrained in popular culture.
The book’s scrutiny of contemporary Darjeeling does not paint a rosy picture. Production has been on the decline for a number of years despite greater demand. The region is affected by a separatist movement that is impacting infrastructure. Increasingly scarce labour is an issue, especially as the production methods are labour-intensive—22,000 hand-plucked shoots are required in the making of a kilo of tea. Painstakingly detailed processes are involved in the various stages of refinement of Darjeeling tea, again impacted by the lack of people. ‘Counterfeit’ tea is commonly passed off as Darjeeling.
On a more positive note, Darjeeling tea has received its GI recognition, and the market for high-end tea is only increasing around the world. Everyone in the trade is optimistic, writes Koehler. He also urges tea to follow the example of coffee in India by making the beverage desirable and cool, citing the example of coffee chains, their taglines and the lifestyle they hawk. Whether that can rescue Darjeeling tea will depend on the current leadership, but this book certainly does its bit for the subject.
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