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.