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  • Tasting Tea in Darjeeling

    Tasting Tea in Darjeeling

To make sure that he is stocking only the best tea in the world, Fortnum’s tea buyer has to inspect the goods at first hand whenever possible. A typical tea-buying trip can involve a long flight, 40 degrees of heat and hundreds of cups of tea to taste – but also, just occasionally, an unexpected birthday cake.

Darren Williams’ last trip to Darjeeling in search of some fine teas for Fortnum & Mason, got off to a bad start. ‘First, there was a bomb scare, not ideal just before a 10-hour flight,’ he recalls. ’We arrived OK, although the temperature was around 40C and very humid. And then we lost all our luggage.’ The luggage did eventually reappear, but after that experience, the tea was going to have to be very good indeed. Fortunately, in Darjeeling, that was a fairly safe bet.

The champagne of teas

Darjeeling is a small town that can be found nestling in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains in the north-east corner of India. It is a hugely prolific tea-growing area, comprising around 85 tea gardens, which produce many of the world’s finest teas, quite a few of which have proved very successful for Fortnum’s. Generally, the higher one goes, the better the tea, and Darjeeling’s highest bushes grow at more than 2000m above sea level. The high altitudes, good soil, pure mountain air and extremes of temperature in summer and winter produce exceptional teas, often known as the champagne of Indian teas, so the potential for finding something special was considerable. ‘It’s a great place to look for new teas,’ agrees Darren. ‘There’s plenty of choice, with plantations from ground level to the tops of the mountains, all producing different sorts of tea.’

Finding something new and special is exactly why Darren heads out on these missions. But he also spends time building and strengthening relationships with existing suppliers. ‘We need to be close to the grower, but these relationships take time to build, so the more face-to-face meetings you have, the better,’ he says. ‘It’s good to talk to the manager to find out what his plans are for the future, in case they’re doing something new that we might be interested in.’

Tea is near-infinite in its variety – the location of tea garden, the weather, the way the tea is handled, dried and processed and many other factors can make leaves from neighbouring plantations taste entirely different.

A trip like this usually involves visits to several estates, some of whom already supply Fortnum’s, and some who are hoping to do so. As happened on this trip, it’s not unusual for Darren to visit 10 estates in 10 days, and, as he sets out with his guides for the first visit, he won’t know what he’s about to taste. Tea is near-infinite in its variety – the location of tea garden, the weather, the way the tea is handled, dried and processed and many other factors can make leaves from neighbouring plantations taste entirely different, just like wines and vineyards. So it’s something of a mystery tour from the first day.

In search of the Second Flush

Darren’s Darjeeling trip took place in July, between the tea bushes’ first and second flush. It is a good time for tea, but not so good for Englishmen abroad. Hot and humid, the temperatures were regularly over 40C. ‘I did do a little sightseeing,’ says Darren, ‘but I’ve never been so hot in my life. It was nice to get out and head north to the estates, which were green and pleasant in comparison to Calcutta.’

As the vehicles bumped along the long and winding roads to the estate, Darren had a chance to admire the Indian tea industry at work. ‘The tea gardens themselves really are gardens rather than fields,’ says Darren. ‘The bushes are laid out in a linear format, and they look beautiful, with people rather than machinery working alongside the bushes.’ Tea is still mostly picked by hand – it is possible to do it by machine, but the quality is nothing like as good. Precise picking is essential, as teas are classified by the exact number of buds and leaves that are picked from the tip of each shoot. ‘It is almost entirely women picking the tea,’ Darren explains. ‘Women are better at selecting the best leaf and bud – it’s meticulous work.’

On arrival at each tea garden, Darren is taken to see every part of the estate, from the tea bushes and the processing factories to the workers’ housing and the estate school for their children. He talks to the manager about how the season is going and talks to the pickers too. One reason for going to the estates in person is to see how the workers live and work – the one thing that can’t be checked from a distance. ‘We always like to check conditions on the estate, to make sure they meet our standards,’ explains Darren.

Then, of course, comes the all-important tasting session. ‘Darjeeling first flush is light and delicate, though I personally prefer the second flush, as the flavour has developed more – so I’d arrived at the right time,’ says Darren. ‘We tasted around 20 to 25 teas on each estate, both black and green, as well as a few specials that the manager had up his sleeve.’

The art of the tea-master

As they drink, the manager explains how the flavours have been developed, which would include what particular processes he has used. The expertise and influence of the estate manager is crucial – rather like a winemaker, he decides how the tea should be picked, dried, rolled and otherwise processed. Every stage in the process can be varied by the manager and makes a huge difference to the final taste. ‘The tea is only as good as the tea manager,’ Darren agrees, ‘and we learn a lot from them.’

Despite the full schedule, it wasn’t all hard work – the hospitality is generous, and Darren often stayed on the estates themselves, in the still-elegant colonial buildings once occupied by the likes of the East India Company. At the end of a particularly hot day, one estate manager had a nice surprise in store, and a very appropriate one. ‘I had my birthday at the bottom of the Himalayas,’ says Darren. ‘They made me a cake – with a nice cup of Darjeeling to go with it.’


First Flush Darjeeling Bannockburn 2012
The hills and valleys in Darjeeling present a steep yet nurturing environment for the very best Darjeeling, this year's Bannockburn is crisp and bright with mellow undertones of honey.

Darjeeling Margaret's Hope Second Flush FTGFOP
This delightful second flush Darjeeling is full of flavour and has a pronounced classic Muscatel character. The small twisted leaves with silver tips produce a warm golden liquor.

Darjeeling FTGFOP
This champagne of teas, harvested from the foothills of the Himalayas, is one of the highest-grown teas, from bushes more than a century old. Made from leaf tips of the highest quality, it has a subtle Muscatel taste and a full-bodied and robust character.

To see all of Fortnum's Darjeeling teas, please browse through the Tea section of our website, or search the website for 'Darjeeling', which will bring up a considerable range of delicious teas to try.