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Around the World with Tea: INDIA




In the second part of our ‘Around the World’ series, our next teatime adventure takes us all the way to India – the home of Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgiri. Join us as we travel through the steamy Brahmaputra valley, where we’ll find Camellia Sinensis var. assamica – the leaf which is the staple to many a great British brew.


From here we head to the cool, crisp foothills of the Himalayas and discover Darjeeling. And finally, we pass by Nilgiri Mountains, where the tea is grown all year round at 2,400 metres high.


Enjoy this excerpt from Time for Tea, written by Tom Parker-Bowles, with illustrations by Zebedee Helm and photography by David Loftus.



Assam, close to sea level in north-eastern India, is tropical, and very, very damp. It sits on the fertile flood plain of the mighty Brahmaputra river, with sodden, temperate winters and humid, torpid summers. The plantations sit on either side of the river’s valley and are thus referred to as Upper and Lower Assam. The biggest of India’s tea-growing regions, Assam has numerous farms, producing both orthodox high-quality single-estate tea, and CTC (cut, tear, curl) grades for blending into breakfast tea bags and to fuel the thirst of Indian domestic consumption.  


This is the land of Camellia sinensis var. assamica, native to the area, with its bigger, broader leaves. The teas are pretty much all black, and have a bold, robust flavour, with fat malty notes. A refined bruiser, this is the backbone of the great British cuppa, high in tannins, strong and thick. Which is what makes it so perfect for blending. Fortnum & Mason’s Royal Blend contains 60% Assam, while the Queen Anne has 50%.  


The first flush, around March, is delicate, but usually discarded as too ‘weedy’ and not up to export quality. The second flush, in May or June, is the most sought after. As the season goes on, the teas flush faster, so higher volumes are produced from June onwards. But the flavour is less concentrated. Production tends to finish in October, when the pluckers return home for Diwali and the whole trade shuts up for the winter.



At the base of the Himalayas, more than 2,000 metres above sea level, sits the hill town of Darjeeling. The steep hills surrounding the town wear verdant garlands of tea plants, painstakingly terraced and lovingly tended. Up here, the air is crisp and clean, miles removed (both literally and figuratively) from the seething, humid allure of Calcutta (modern-day Kolkata), down to the south. Which is exactly why it was so attractive to colonial British families, both military and in the government, in the mid-nineteenth century, as an escape from the stifling ravages of the Indian summer on the plains of West Bengal.  


It all started with two British officers, sent up from Calcutta to resolve a territorial dispute between Nepal and Sikkim. They spent a rather restful week at ‘the old Goorka station called Dorjeeling’, and returned, deeply refreshed and singing its praises. A few years later, in 1835, the ruler, Sikkimputtee Rajah, was coerced into signing a deed that ceded Darjeeling to the East India Company, who desired the land ‘on account of its cool climate, for the purpose of enabling the servants of his government, suffering from sickness’.  


Anyway, a sanatorium was established, under the command of Dr Archibald Campbell of the Indian Medical Service, and in 1841 he planted a handful of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. The small, delicate-leafed plant thrived in the thin, well-drained soil, producing sweet young buds and leaves. It also survived the winter frosts, and revelled in the misty monsoon summer (Darjeeling means ‘place of Indra’s thunderbolt’). These two climatic features helped give the tea its uniquely light, sweet and aromatic flavour, along with the thin, cool air that slows maturation.  


By the 1850s, tea planting had begun in earnest, with the majority of the grunt work carried out by the Gorkas (originally from Nepal, they made up the majority of the local population), clearing plantations, terracing hillsides, building roads and picking the tea. Twenty years later, there were 100 estates. In 1881, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway opened, improving the link between the plains and the mountains, and modern British tea-manufacturing equipment was brought in to increase production. Despite this, yields can be up to three times less than in other areas. Those steep slopes don’t make picking easy. Growth is patchy, hence the lower volume.  


Nowadays, the ownership of Darjeeling gardens (and yes, these are definitely ‘gardens’ rather than the large-scale estates found in Assam and Kenya) varies from eccentric, old-fashioned proprietors to Indian-owned gardens such as Ambootia and Chamong, to large multinationals.  


The first flush, in March and early April, is light and lithe, like a prima ballerina, with a clean citrus softness. And it’s one of the great teas of the world. Fortnum’s has a seasonal Darjeeling that reminds some of angels weeping on their tongue. With a price to match, as this is the most exquisite of the first Darjeeling teas.  


The second flush comes in May, when the famed ‘muscatel’ flavour notes really show. After all the exertions of the first flush, the bushes have a brief dormant spell, known as bhanji, before the second flush breaks through. To this day, the leaves are hand-picked and the Darjeeling tea industry is very much an old- fashioned, artisanal one, with eighty-seven tea estates still going strong. Despite the beauty, owning a plantation (as well as working on one) is a labour of love, a privilege as much as a job. Darjeeling tea was the first Indian product to be awarded a PGI (like Champagne, Cornish pasties and Welsh lamb), meaning that only teas grown and produced in the area can wear that great name. Some Nepalese teas are equally good, although they don’t command the same high prices, thanks to being on the wrong side of the border.



Down near the south-western tip of India, high up in the Nilgiri mountains – the natural dividing line between the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu – are 60,000 acres set aside for the growing of tea. There are two rainy seasons, and the area is close to the Equator, meaning tea can be grown all year round. With the highest point at around 2,400 metres, it’s India’s loftiest tea-growing area, and at best produces delicate high-altitude, single-estate teas, as well as orthodox black, white and green, and more mass-market CTC tea, destined for tea bags the world over. Teas are generally strong and dark, but smooth and fragrant too. But the tea from the highest gardens can be very light in flavour, as can the frost teas of January, when sharp cold weather slows the growth, which in turn concentrates the flavour.