Darjeeling tea India Margarets Hope Bengal Castelton Makaibari

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Darjeeling Tea
Food article / commentary

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane
Country: India

It's probably better not to get too interested in tea. The reason is that it can become an obsession. One day you are sipping a cup of the pale amber brew from the local supermarket, then before you know it, you are frantically tracking down the latest first flush Darjeeling from one of the 86 official ‘gardens' in the state of West Bengal.
Darjeeling tea is often referred to as the ‘champagne' of teas and the first crops of the season are sought after with the same passion as wine lovers hungering for the first Beaujolais.
So what makes Darjeeling tea so special? The first thing to notice is how the border of India suddenly juts upwards into Nepal. The border ensures that the prized teas fall within Indian territory. The tea plants were first brought to the area from China, by the British, in the middle of the 19th century. The plants thrived in the rarefied air, the good soil and the plentiful rainfall.
Some of the first plantations were Makaibari, Alubari and Margaret's Hope. By 1866 over 20000 kilograms of tea was being produced annually.
Today, there are 86 "gardens" or "estates" officially recognised by the Tea Board of India as being producers of Darjeeling tea. Between them they produce over 10 million kilos of tea and employ a staggering 65000 workers on a full time or seasonal basis.
Darjeeling tea is controlled in a similar way to wine appellations in Europe. If you want to check to make sure that you are drinking ‘official' Darjeeling tea, you will see the official logo on the packaging. If you are still in doubt, make yourself a cup and check that it is a light golden colour with a distinctive ‘grape' or muscatel aroma.
Let's now look at how it is grown and classified. The tea plants lie dormant in the cold winter months at such a high altitude. (Some of the gardens are over 7000 feet above sea level!) The plants grow and mature is the same way as vines. The terroir affects the flavour of the tea. Soil, water, rainfall, rate of growth, rock type and cultivation method all contribute to the final flavour and style of the tea.
As spring approaches the buds appear and the pickers turn out to harvest the first of the leaves and buds that become known as the Easter Flush or, more commonly, the First Flush.
This is the tea that is so highly sought after. It is a very light, golden colour and has that characteristic muscatel aroma. It is delicate, fragrant and subtle. It is a tea for connoisseurs. It is like savouring a delicate Burgundy from Chambolle-Musigny rather than a huge Syrah from the Rhone Valley.
The next crop is known as the Spring Flush and this is fuller and rounder on the palate and is preferred by many for its more concentrated flavour. The subsequent Summer Flush and Autumn Flush produce more robust and less refined flavours, although, like wine, this depends on climatic factors. Sometimes an Autumn Flush tea is superb!
An indicator of the quality of the leaves that are used can be gained from the grading system. You will see some tea referred to as OP (Orange Pekoe) or FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe). These terms are used to refer to the largest leaves. These are generally the lowest quality. They then range through several grades until SFTGFOP (Super or Supreme Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) is reached. This is an indicator of the finest tea picked from the small delicate tips. Sometimes you will see a 1 or 2 used in the code to indicate first or second quality within the grade.
So, what should you look for if you are seeking the finest teas. There are three estates that Foodtourist.com particularly recommends as producers of the finest teas with the most refined flavours. Seek out the teas from:
Castleton Tea Estate
Margaret's Hope Tea Estate
Makaibari Tea Garden
The last of these produces their teas using organic techniques.
There is no doubt that teas from these estates will cost considerably more than regular tea, but the difference will amaze and astound you.

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