I love tea which is slightly stereotypical given my nationality, but then again I’m lesbian with short hair, several P!nk albums and a penchant for Superdry underwear so stereotypes are kinda my thing. I was totally thrown by chai when I first arrived in India though. When I was handed a tiny plastic cup of over-sweetened nipple seepage that had taken on a vague tea-like colour I was like, well it’s not fucking tea is it?! I learned to love it though. As long as I think of it not as actual tea, but simply chai, tea’s distant cousin who tea grudgingly likes even though they thoroughly disapprove of it, I can cope. Actually I fucking crave the shit, it must be the sugar, I can’t go more than three stations on a train without accosting the chai wallah and thrusting a ₹10 note at him as he shuffles through my coach, and I’ve drank more than my fair share of the constantly boiling liquid on offer from the various make shift tea stalls you see around the cities.
But Darjeeling, guys. It makes you realise what a total fucking tea heathen you’ve been your whole life. Apparently Yorkshire Tea is not the Holy Grail and getting excited because that cafe in Goa you went to that time served Tetleys did nothing to elevate your status as any manner of connoisseur. Trust me. Tea is an art form here, not like in Munnar where they hack the leaves from the branches with giant scissors every ten days or so and process it using a process known as CTC, Crush Tear Curl, which is an efficient but comparatively brutal way of producing a lot of mediocre quality tea very quickly. If Darjeeling was sentient it’d probably look down its colonial nose at Munnar and mutter, “Ugh, barbarian.” Anjana told us that all picking is still done by hand here, and when we were talking about buying some tea to take home she advised us to make sure we knew if we were buying first or second flush. I think I just kinda nodded in what I hoped was a semi-wise manner before looking into a homestay on a tea plantation so me and Joe could go and learn how shit went down here to impress all of our friends back home with our extensive knowledge. Slash bore the shit of out of them with my new found pretentiousness, ready to stab them in the hand with a dainty silver cake fork if they so much as thought of adding milk to the organic Autumnal flush first standard I’d just served them from a China teapot.
We rocked up to Makaibari and were introduced to our host, Passang, which apparently means “Friday” in Tibetan. He was born on a Friday. Fair enough really, if I’d just squeezed a baby-sized object out of my vagina I’d lack the imagination to name it anything other than the day of the week or several choice expletives. He was a really lovely bloke though and he spoke excellent English. But this was my first all inclusive full board homestay. I’d kinda avoided this sort of thing so far on account of having no idea how to conduct myself in this situation. Turns out that, as Ajit had told me all those months ago, Guest Is God. We were fed first, Passang and his wife watched us eat and topped up our plates with more rice and dhal when necessary which was all well and good, but what about them? So it turns out they don’t eat until the guests have eaten their fill. Once we’d finished, Passang smiled and said, “Now it’s our turn!” and demonstrated the fine art of shoveling fistfuls of rice into your facehole. Seriously, I thought I’d come a long way, able to scoop up balls of rice on the end of my fingers and flick it into my gob with minimal mess. Passang practically dislocated his bottom fucking jaw like a snake and wolfed down handfuls, all whilst maintaining conversation. High five, Passang. High five. Maybe wash your hands first though ay. Then Joe tried to wash up but they wouldn’t let him. Joe explained that in England it’s polite to at least offer, and Passang told us that if the guests wash up in their household it’s considered “very shame.” I’ll not be complaining. If anyone comes to mine for dinner they’re locked in the kitchen until the dishes are done. We sat up for a while with Passang, just chatting and drinking the rum that Joe had brought and various homemade alcohols that Passang produced from under the sink.
So. This plantation. The following day we were lead around the tea fields with two others and their host. There are two types of tea grown here; the Chinese camellia sinensis which is the stuff also grown in Munnar, but they also grow Assam tea which has larger, darker green leaves, and they produce a hybrid of the two. But regardless of what strain of tea it is it’s all harvested the same way. By hand. Only the tips are plucked and used, none of this indiscriminate hacking like they do in the south. And it’s not done every ten days either. Some of the bushes had been hacked right back to their stumps. Apparently this happens in November, they’re proper pruned. Not all bushes it seems, there was still a lot of green. So by the spring, these stumps would have produced leaves and these are plucked to become first flush. Riiiiight, so that’s what the fuck they’re on about! This tea is apparently stronger. It’s plucked between February and April, mainly in March, and there were signs up all over Darjeeling announcing the arrival of the “First Flush now in!” After extensive experimentation at Golden Tips in the main square I decided that I was probably a First Flush kinda chick. Then there’s Muscatel, or second flush. These are the leaves plucked through the summer, then there’s the Autumnal Flush which apparently has a slightly different colour to it. Then bushes are pruned back, nothing is plucked throughout the winter, then the whole bastard thing starts again as the first leaves sprout through.
Oh. But darlings. I forgot to tell you about the silver tips. Makaibari isn’t just organic, it’s biodynamic or some shit. Just when I thought hippies couldn’t get any more hippy, I learn something new. This basically means stuff like sowing, harvesting and fertilising etc is sometimes done according to an astrological calendar, or the fucking moon or something. So silver tips are, and I shit you not, the buds of the leaves picked before dawn on the night of the full moon, then processed as black tea. No, really, this is a thing. I wouldn’t lie to you about something as serious as tea, guys. There are lines one must never cross.
We’d also been given a tour of the processing plant which was mostly deserted on account of there not being much plucking right now, and the processing is also vastly different to what goes down in Munnar on account of Darjeeling tea being Orthadox. This basically means quality not quantity, and the tea isn’t chopped up into a million tiny pieces before being oxidised and dried. They process black, green, white and oolong tea here, the latter of which I’d never even fucking heard of. So, all of the tea goes to be withered first. This involved the leaves being laid out on these massive tray type thingies and warm air being passed underneath. This removes about 70% of the moisture from the leaves, any more and they’d crumble during the rolling process which is the next stage, unless it’s destined to be white tea. White tea doesn’t get rolled. It’s clearly way too posh for that. So the non-white tea goes into this machine which does the aforementioned rolling for 25 minutes, then if it’s going to be black or oolong tea it goes in trays to sit on shelves and be oxidised for two hours if it’s black and one hour if it’s oolong. Apparently, oolong is tea that has the characteristics of both black and green tea. For folks who can’t make up their bloody minds I guess. Then everything is dried. It doesn’t matter what colour your Darjeeling tea is, it’s going into a machine to get dried at some obscene temperature before it goes into a shaky type thing which sifts out the shite you can’t drink, then shuffles the leaves into drinkable piles sorted by size.
Oh man. I never knew there was so fucking much to tea though. I swear you could probably get a full Open University course on this shit. If you look at a packet of Darjeeling tea it might have a string of letters on it reading FTGFOP1. This means Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe First standard. I promise you. Google it. This is genuinely a thing. This is the solid leaves the leaves that haven’t crumbled. It’s the best motherfucking tea in the whole damn world, y’all! It probably costs more than diamonds or some shit. If your tea packet only has the letters TGFOP written on it, these are the semi-broken leaves. Still good shit, probably tastes exactly the same as its fancy, full leaved brethren. Then there’s BOP, which are the broken leaves, which are lovely and affordable and could even have come off the same bush as that solid leaf over there. Processed exactly the same way. This is was we were given at the homestay and I certainly won’t be writing any letters of complaint about it. And finally, there’s dust, which is used for tea bags. I considered myself well and truly educated in the ways of dried leaves. A new tea snob was born that day.
Also, people live on the estate. We were lead past a little village and our guide asked us if we wanted to try some chyang, a homemade rice beer. Well why not ay? As we were on our hols an’ all that. He said a few words to a little old lady who lead us into her kitchen and sat us down. She disappeared and returned with mugs and a pan of a creamy white liquid. So it tasted like warm cider. It’s one of those things that you don’t think you’ll like after the first mouthful but intend to finish the mug out of typical British politeness, then by the time to take your last sip you’re holding your cup out for second helpings and fuck the complaints of your liver.
We were fed lunch before we headed off for a spot of tea tasting before leaving. This is worth mentioning on account of a tiny little chilli that Passang was snacking on the previous night known as a Fireball. They grow them in the area. Joe asked him if he ever got those hiccups you get when you eat raw chilli, and Passang said that only happens if you eat chilli you can’t handle. Fair enough, it happens to me a lot. Joe too, but he decided that he wanted to try one so at lunch time he was presented with this tiny little ball of mouth-death. I politely declined. I know my limits and I didn’t want to do anything to upset my digestive system when we had a train to catch that night. Joe took a bite. He said it was delicious. Awesome. Just as I was thinking, maybe they aren’t as hot as Passang made them out to be and maybe I should try one, Joe took a second bite. Aaaaand this is pretty much when his face melted. He didn’t know whether to stand up or sit down. Any words he tried to utter were incinerated as soon as they left his tongue. Fair play to him though, he kept on going with it. I didn’t know whether to high five him or tip a bucket of milk over him. I’ve never seen a man in so much pain and certainly not one such a fetching shade of red. I’ve no idea why he bothered with the tea tasting afterwards, I’m pretty sure he destroyed 90% of his taste buds that day.
But yeah, this tea tasting. We were given six different shades of tasty hot beverage which we were to slurp off a spoon. Yes. Slurp. That’s how posh folks taste stuff like wine and tea and general liquids init. So upper class, dah-ling. It doesn’t make for very attractive photos though and it pretty much highlighted how unsophisticated my palette is. I swear I couldn’t tell the difference between most of them, and that fancy fucking full moon silver tip bollocks, well it pretty much tasted like everything else. Might as well have been Tesco’s own brand. Clearly I need more tea drinking practice. I shall be all over this the minute I get home.
But we still had to get to NJP to wait for our train to the north east and no one knew if a taxi or a shared jeep would swing by this way. Maybe one would, maybe not. So Joe, an experienced hitch hiker, just started sticking his thumb out and a jeep started to slow down for us. Oh man, it was a fucking police vehicle. I stepped back. Joe registered it, almost pulled his thumb in but the cocky sod within stopped him. The car stopped. I cringed and waited for the imminent bollocking. Joe approached the car and just outright asked the driver if he could give us a lift to NJP. Nope, they weren’t going there. But they could take us halfway to where we could easily pick up a shared jeep. Oh my god, what a fucking legend! And what an awesome couple of days. Great company with Passang, an interesting tour of a Darjeeling tea estate and a ride with the cops, but not in a way that results in handcuffs and a strip search.
Makaibari Tea Estate, Nr. Darjeeling, West Bengal, India
Stayed at: Passang’s place as part of the Makaibari Homestay Programme