Sitting on the sunny deck of one of the oldest remaining bakeries in town, I sipped a cup of Darjeeling. An odd noun, that one. Most of the time it refers to the tea: with its distinct fragrance, easily destroyed by over brewing, or by using water which is a tad too hot or cold. I had a choice of a shortbread or a scone to go with it, and this morning I chose the warm scone. I sat back, and enjoyed the cool breeze and the view of the other meaning of the noun: the town.
I wondered how true is the story I’ve heard of the arrival of tea plantations to these hills. The East India Company wanted to create an alternative to the Chinese teas which gave it much of its profit in the early 19th century. There were unsuccessful trials in planting a few trees in the Nilgiris and the Terai. But, the story goes, a few years later some of the abandoned experiments were discovered to have become feral crossbreeds growing in the hills of Assam. True to its bureaucratic nature, the EIC then planted it across tracts of hills all over India, cropping the bushes waist high to ease the picking of leaves. It is undoubtedly true that the EIC designated different pluckings: first flush, second flush, autumn flush, or golden pekoe, flowery pekoe, orange pekoe. This is very different from the way tea is produced or categorized in China. The proliferation of grades and categories carries on till today, deeply entrenched in the snooty connoisseurship which determines trading value.
My very common snoot tells me that I like some teas better than others, but a look at the maps of the estates does not give me any clue to whether I discern slope or height. Perhaps the soil, a hopeful salesman suggested. His specialty (special tea?) shop treated me to tastings of leaves plucked from different parts of an estate. “Different soils,” I was told. My nose drooped in the shame of being unable to decide that the highest priced category was the best. So I was happy with the house blend from the bakery, as it mingled with the scent of the scone in my upper respiratory tract. Ahh, the fresh air of the hills.