Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World's Greatest Tea
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Darjeeling's tea bushes run across a mythical Indian landscape steeped in the religious, the sacred, and the picturesque. Planted among eighty-seven tea estates at high elevation in the heart of the eastern Himalayas, the linear rows of brilliant green waist-high shrubs that coat the steep slopes and valleys produce less than 1 percent of India's tea. Yet with its bright color and muscatel flavor, Darjeeling is generally considered the finest tea in the world.
Built from scratch, India's tea industry grew to be the largest on the globe and came to symbolize British imperial rule in India. The jewel of its production was, and remains, Darjeeling, and its story is rich in people, intrigue, and terroir. It includes Robert Fortune, whose mid-nineteenth-century smuggling of tea plants and expertise from China brought the British East India Company the quality tea it sought; the charismatic and controversial Rajah Banerjee, whose family owned the iconic Makaibari plantation for 150 years; the tea pluckers who underpin the industry; and the lone auctioneer who bangs down his hammer oversees the sale more than half of Darjeeling's entire crop. But it is also the story of how this Edenic spot in the Himalayan foothills is beset by labor and political unrest and alarming climate change that threaten its future.
With passion and perception, Koehler illuminates a historic and arcane world, such that an ordinary tea bag and the cup enjoyed by tens of millions each day take on entirely new meanings.
four-hundred-mile-long valley as it slithers southwest toward the Bay of Bengal. Altering its path and shifting its braided strands from year to year, the river widens to a dozen miles in places. In 1823, Robert Bruce, a Scottish adventurer, explorer, and businessman, was trading along the upper Brahmaputra Valley when he came across indigenous tea growing in the dense jungle. Local Singpho tribes pickled the leaves and ate them with oil and garlic and sometimes dried fish, much in the manner of
1851, Fortune, the Chinese recruits, the tools of their trade, and the tea-filled Wardian cases sailed from Shanghai to Hong Kong. There, the group boarded the Lady Mary Wood, a Peninsular & Oriental wooden steamship built ten years before and used on the Calcutta–Hong Kong service, for which the 160-foot steamer had carried a cargo of opium on its outbound run.9 The journey to Calcutta took a month. In mid-March, the Lady Mary Wood crossed the Bay of Bengal and entered the Hooghly River,
dichotomy. Firing the leaves in this deep state of oxidation, when fermenting flavors are at their ripest, he said with a mischievous expression, “kills the process of death and seals it.” The last stage in the factory is sorting and grading the tea. The four categories, in descending order of size, are whole leaf, broken leaf, fannings, and dust. The last two are used to fill tea bags. Most Darjeeling gardens aim for 60 or 70 percent leaf-grade tea. Whole-leaf teas are graded using a
Nothing in his actions is delicate—or haphazard. It’s messy, and the Rajasthan-born Dhancholia wears an apron made of a tight blue-and-white-check material like that of picnic tablecloths and a matching cap that comes down low on his forehead and sits like a moppy beret. Finally, back at the first cup, he tastes the tea. He loudly slurps a generous mouthful of liquid off the spoon. Holding it for a moment, he takes two or three quick and sharp aerating sucks that flood the liquor around the
sat on the counter in a perfect row like an unstrung necklace. Rohini is trying to do about 10 percent of its production as green teas. Some gardens are sticking to black—Marybong, for instance—but at least one of the Chamong group’s Darjeeling gardens has converted more than half its production toward green. “We have the finest raw materials in the world,” said Sanjay Sharma of Glenburn, who questions whether green teas are the best use for Darjeeling’s premium leaves. Certainly, green