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.
After the factory tour, we met up with Mr. Banerjee in his office. The walls were covered with a variety of letters of praise and appreciation from customers around the world. Accolades in the press and awards from international organizations from tea associations to social and environmental groups shared space with photographs and drawings of his ancestors. Of these last images on his wall, Mr. Banerjee mentioned the importance of ensuring the longevity of his family’s good name on behalf of his ancestors who had worked so hard.We tasted through a selection of the Makaibari teas in this order: First Flush Black, Muscatel Black, Oolong (Mr. Banerjee likes to call it Darjoolong), Silver Tips Green, Bai Mu Dan White and Imperial Silver Tips. The first cup was stunning with its clear peach aromas and fruity flavor that was balanced by a light astringency. As we tasted the others, the importance of the artistry in the processing became clear. Each tea was from the Makaibari estate, but because of the manner of processing, each tea was distinctly different — from light and fruity to deeper and woodsier to whisper light and refreshingly sweet. The Makaibari estate covers over 1,400 acres of land of which only one third is planted with tea. The remaining two-thirds are original forests that play an important part in the environmental plan of Makaibari. As we walked, Mr. Banerjee was constantly plucking at plants along the way. He would excitedly call out the names of various plants or birds we would come across or he would pull a leaf, lightly crush it and hand it to us saying, “Tell me what this is.” Fresh turmeric, fresh cinnamon, lemon grass, indigo, hemp, cherry, peach, pear, geranium, crocus, orchid… all of these things grow wild amidst his tea bushes in an amazing riot of diversity. He explained the importance of this diversity as he pointed across the valley to another property where the side of the mountain had eroded into a rocky landslide. “That will never happen here. We have too many plants maintaining the quality of the soil and holding it all together with their mix of root systems both small and large.” At another point, he said government certifications such as “organic” or “biodynamic” are fine, but noted that they can be obtained falsely. “Nature’s certification cannot be cheated,” he said. “If you have spiders growing on your plants, this means you have a healthy supply of bugs which means healthy soil and healthy plants.” Rajah has many snakes on his property but it is rare for anyone to be bitten. A neighboring estate, however, has frequent problems with snake bites. “It is the difference between a happy snake and an angry snake,” he explained. “When you take away a snake’s natural habitat by spraying fertilizers and pesticides, the snakes move to more hospitable spaces in and around human homes. They feed on mice inside the homes and are often discovered unexpectedly — and they defend themselves with a bite.” His snakes are happy in their nooks and crannies full of naturally available food. In all, we walked about four or five miles discussing tea, nature, his workers and his gardens. It was a hot day but we felt energized by what we were seeing: good soil, plentiful plant and animal life, happy workers and beautiful tea plants. We understood now, how the teas we had tasted could be so expressive in the cup.
At the end of our walk, we were treated to a lunch of traditional Nepali food cooked by a friend of the Banerjees. At lunch we met Mr. Banerjee’s “better half” Srirupa who works with him especially in their support of economic development for local women. The lunch was outstanding and was made using ingredients from their gardens (green beans, potatoes, mustard greens, garlic and onion among others) and a chicken that had recently been killed. We made our way back to the tea factory where we said our thanks and goodbyes. We left feeling very excited about the prospect of bringing Makaibari tea to Formaggio Kitchen and telling the story of this amazing tea to our customers.