Thoughtful Appreciation: A Visit to Darjeeling, India, Pt 2Print this Page

Tea enthusiasts Tim and Mary of Formaggio Kitchen recently traveled to Darjeeling, India, to visit tea plantations. This account, the second of three parts, was written by Tim.

Rajah Banerjee, farmer, tea connoisseur, businessman, mystic

Friday morning we were up early and had a simple breakfast that included a delicious aloo paratha, fried bread with spiced potato filling. After eating, we traveled a short distance down the road to the Makaibari tea factory where we met owner and cult of personality Rajah Banerjee.

We had read of Mr. Banerjee and his safari outfit and his penchant for riding around his estate on horseback. We were not disappointed. No horse in our case, but one of the factory guards pointed up the hill into what looked like an overgrown tea garden where we could see a silver-haired man in a full khaki safari outfit making his way through the tea plants. As he approached, he inspected each plant and plucked a few leaves here and there. We were pleased to finally meet each other after several weeks of correspondence. He immediately apologized for the looming strike and hoped he could help us make the most of it.

Mr. Banerjee is well-educated (Cambridge), well-spoken (he gives lectures all over the world and has written several books) and, as we soon discovered, he is also quite a mystic. Throughout the day he spoke of inspirational moments during his life where he believed spiritual forces were guiding him -- his revelation of his life's calling as he fell off his horse during a violent storm, for example, or the story of how the marble Ganesh in the small temple at the entrance of his tea factory came to him. I got the sense that this openess to the world beyond ourselves was the foundation for his holistic approach to life and his tea production. At the heart of it all, Mr. Banerjee is a farmer, a social activist, an environmentalist, a connoisseur of tea and a shrewd businessman.

Just 40% of the Makaibari estate is maintained tea gardens. The rest of the estate is woodlands and forest.

Mr. Banerjee is a vanguard of the environmental movement in India. In the early 70s he eliminated chemical spraying on his estate and the estate has been certified organic since 1988. The estate also received Demeter certification for biodynamic production in 1991. Makaibari works closely with its seven communities to provide economic opportunities that lead to self-sustainability in an environmentally sound manner. Mr. Banerjee recently established a women-owned business in the Sikkim district that uses local grass to produce natural fiber bags that hold the Makaibari tea for retail sale.

Women spend all day plucking tea leaves

We began our tour with the factory manager, Sanjay, who took us through each stage of tea production. Women with woven baskets on their backs spend each day plucking the new shoots from the tops of the waist-high tea plants. If done properly, each pluck will contain two leaves and one bud. The bud is essentially a leaf that is still rolled tightly upon itself and is covered with a soft, silvery down that becomes more apparent when the tea is processed.

During our visit, the tea bushes had made the transition from "First Flush" to "Second Flush." There are four "flushes" or harvests, each followed by a brief period of dormancy. First Flush occurs in March and April, Second Flush in May and June, Rain Flush takes place over July and August and finally Autumn Flush in September or October to November. Following Autumn Flush, the tea plants are dormant from December through February. This year, severe drought has delayed the series of flushes about two weeks.

Long troughs covered with a wire mesh are used to dry out the fresh tea leaves in a process called withering.

Once the leaves have been plucked, they are brought to the factory where they are spread in a thin layer on a large, wire grate that spans about 50 feet in length. Each grate rests on top of a long boxed platform through which air is gently fanned. As the air flows under the leaves, they undergo a loss of moisture called "withering." When fully withered, the leaves will have lost about 70% of their moisture.

Large yellow rolling machines perform the surprisingly gentle task of rolling about 62kg of tea at a time.

In the next step, each leaf is rolled up onto itself. Rolling is an important step that breaks down the membranes of the tea leaf, starting the process of oxidation that helps develop the color and flavor of the finished tea. In some cases, the leaves are hand-rolled, but the majority of teas produced at Makaibari are rolled by machine.

Tim checks out the newly-rolled leaves with factory manager Sanjay

Once rolled, the tea is put onto large sheet pans, spread into a thin layer and put into the drying machine, which is essentially a large oven. When fully dried, the leaves are removed, allowed to cool and sent on to the sorting room where each batch of tea is grouped by flush, its source garden and the variety of tea plant.

Once the teas are dried, they are further sorted by hand

The teas are further sorted using a combination of machines and hands. Each batch of tea is sorted into various grades, from dust and "fannings," small broken leaves that are often used for tea bags, to the finest grades, which typically have flecks of green leaf and silvery tips amidst the fully oxidized black tea leaves.

Once the tea is sorted, it is ready for packaging and sale. We are happy to be able to offer some of Rajah's wonderful tea in our store and we hope you have a chance to try his creations or even better, to visit him yourself.

In Part 3, read about Tim and Mary's visit to the tea tasting room.