Thoughtful Appreciation: A Visit to Darjeeling, India
Mary glanced out of the car window, made a brief fearful noise and looked away again. We were halfway up the side of a mountain just south of Darjeeling and our car had come perilously close to the edge of the very narrow and very winding road. It struck me that in the U.S. the acceptable distance between car and sheer cliff or between car and oncoming car is about two or three feet. Our driver's level of comfort was about two or three inches.
We had arrived the night before in New Delhi and after a few hours of sleep and another, shorter flight to Bagdogra in the northeast, we were on our way up into the mountains to visit tea plantations. Neither Mary nor I had ever been to India before. This trip was a personal adventure for us both, but it was also a practical experience to develop our knowledge of Indian tea, specifically what is referred to as the "Champagne of tea:" Darjeeling. At Formaggio Kitchen, we sell more than 20 varieties of bulk tea purchased from the French tea company Dammann Freres. This trip was giving us the opportunity to have a firsthand experience of tea production from the tea garden to the finished product.
As we neared the town of Kurseong where we would be staying, we recognized the name Makaibari on a few signs. Makaibari is the name of the tea estate we would be visiting the next day. Each of the three signs were shaped like teacups and paid tribute to some form of plant or animal: first a large hornbill bird, second a panther and third a tree with "We love trees" written on it.
The Makaibari estate is known as a leader in the sustainable production of Darjeeeling tea with attention paid to their environmental impact as well as their socioeconomic impact. Mr. Rajah Banerjee (Swaraj Kumar Banerjee), the fourth generation owner of the estate, has worked hard to adopt biodynamic practices for which he was recently awarded Demeter certification. We would tour the gardens and factory with owner Mr. Banerjee the next day. After passing the Makaibari estate, we arrived at the Cochrane House, where we would spend the night.
The Cochrane House is the old country estate of English Barrister Percy Cochrane (1844-1966). In guide books, the hotel is often said to have a lot of character, and indeed it does -- the building is a hodgepodge of rough stonework, corrugated steel and wood framing with stained glass windows and quirky details such as a large monkey figure hanging from the roof and elephant-like tea spouts extending from the side of the café at the top of the building -- all of this and 360 degree views of the mountainous tea gardens surrounding it.
After checking in, we were told there would be a strike in two days at which point everything in the Darjeeling Hills area would shut down and travel out or in would be impossible. If we adhered to our original schedule, we would miss our flight: unfortunately, it became clear we would have to leave this beautiful region a full day early and absorb all we could in the span of one day.
After reaching our rooms, we were brought a cup of steaming Darjeeling tea in a clear glass cup. The color was golden with hints of green. The light and fruity aroma was immediately soothing, and we soon felt more relaxed after the bad news of the strike. Before dinner we shared a pot of green tea and spoke with a couple staying at the Cochrane. It turns out the woman grew up in Vermont, lived for a time in Cambridge and now lives in India. Her new husband lives in New York and they were enjoying their honeymoon touring India. It suddenly felt like a very small world.
Later, one of the staff encouraged us to try a blend of green tea with passion fruit that had been picked that morning. His talk was imbued with a sense of importance about tea in a way that was almost mystical. In his estimation, there are many factors beyond simple taste to consider when eating and drinking. There are energies in one's body and there are corresponding energies in our food and drink choices. Just as it is important to pair food and drink according to taste and texture, it is important to find complementary energies as well. We quickly realized that tea in Darjeeling is a serious subject worthy of thoughtful appreciation.
In Part 2, read Tim's account of how tea is harvested and processed.