INDIA: TEA FOR TWO IN KOLKATA AND DARJEELING
My chum, Vanessa, amongst other things, buys tea for legendary US deli, Zingerman’s.
It was my announcement, when I was in Ann Arbor last October, that I was going to head up to Darjeeling towards the end of my trip in India, that prompted her to ask if she could join me to see the good stuff being harvested at source.
Who was I to disagree? Particularly when she agreed to turn her considerable talents to organising it.
Which is why, after a short flight and a frankly terrifying car journey we found ourselves pulling up outside the guest bungalow of The Goomtee Tea Estate some 40km South of Darjeeling.
One of the most highly respected tea estates in Darjeeling, Goomtee allows visitors to stay for short periods in their guest accommodation and to join their staff on tours of the plantation and the manufacturing facility.
Before heading up to Darjeeling, Vanessa had already organised for us to join Ashoka Gandotra, a renowned tea taster, for a session of slurping and spitting in Kolkata. Quite an amazing experience as he introduced us to a huge selection of teas, explaining their characteristics and guiding us through the often, confusing terminology employed to grade the good from the bad.
What better then than to help shake the dust from our feet on our arrival at Goomtee than a pot of the real stuff brewed from the leaves selected last Autumn? Lightly coloured with a gentle flavour.
Goomtee accommodates on a full board basis. The food is well known for being simple but delicious and with three square a day and precious little to do but sit in the charming guest quarters, read and admire the astonishing scenery, It is a perfect contrast to the craziness that is Kolkata.
With all meals being vegetarian, supper consisted of simple dishes of eggplant, cauliflower Singara (Bengali Samosa) and Momo, local Nepalese inspired dumplings and breakfasts of Idli (southern Indian rice and lentil cakes) with gently spiced sambar.
Vanessa, with impeccable timing had arranged for us to arrive the day that the garden was planning to begin the first harvest of the new season's first flush.
The first flush is not considered to give the best teas from Darjeeling. That comes in May and June with the second flush. But, the light, almost green, teas make a refreshing, pungent brew which has developed its own following
On our first day, we were introduced to the plantation manager, the imperious Mr Maharesh who announced to the waiting workers that the rain clouds looming overhead would mean no picking on that day. While they headed back to their respective homes, we were taken for a tour of the production facilities.
The next morning, thankfully, the weather improved immeasurably and we headed out to watch the first teas of the season being plucked. The picking is always done by women whose hands, being smaller, cause less damage to the plants. It is, as one would imagine, extraordinarily hard labour, but the workers here are relatively well paid and the garden owners provide housing, schools and health care which makes this an attractive proposition for people heading here in search of jobs from neighbouring Nepal.
That afternoon, we left Goomtee and headed into Darjeeling, some ninety minutes to the North. It is a harmless place to pass a couple of days, but, being full square on the hippie trail, the food options are pretty ropey and aimed primarily at serving neutered “Indian” dishes to French travellers with dreadlocks. In fact, some of the worst food experienced in my whole time in India.
Apart from one horribly early morning start to head to Tiger Hill where we watched The Sun rise over The Himalayas, we spent the majority of our time at Nathmull’s, easily the best tea store in the town. The owner Vijay and son, Girish gave us tastes of some of the best teas from Darjeeling all of which they buy direct from the gardens themselves. We tasted 2007 first flush, second flush, rainy season and Autumn teas from many estates. All different but all having their own distinctive qualities.
With two more days in Kolkata before heading back to the UK and then on to Africa, my short time at Goomtee will find itself very definitely in list of top experiences during the EAT MY GLOBE trip and that morning cuppa may never taste the same ever again.