Hello from Egmore, Chennai. It’s really hot down here.
Currently at the Kolkata airport (CCU) flying to Chennai in a few hours. Sadly there isn’t time to see Dum Dum, South Dum Dum or Salt Lake City.
Wednesday I head to the south.
My time at the Makaibari Tea Estate in the past 10 days has been perfect. I’ve done more than I thought possible, met lovely people along the way, was well fed, wandered in the tea fields daily and photographed everything.
Tomorrow I start a trek to the south to visit the lesser known tea growing region of India: Nilgiri.
Wednesday and overnight train from Siliguri to Kolkata.
Thursday an afternoon flight from Kolkata to Chennai.
Three nights in Chennai to see that city and get a first taste of the south.
Sunday a quick flight from Chennai to Coimbatore where the Highfield Tea Estate is located.
Makaibari has been hosting a project at Highfield to convert it to organic growing and manufacturing. I’ll get to meet the people involved and see how it all works.
Sitting in the tea fields savoring the view and music of countless insects, birds, roosters and goats. Meanwhile the fog is condensing in the valley. My last full night at Makaibari before heading south tomorrow evening. Details soon.
Where am I?
My tea adventure started at the Makaibari Tea Estate in the town of Kurseong, in the district of Darjeeling, state of West Bengal, India. Makaibari is a more like a village within Kurseong.
I’ve come north for a few days to see Darjeeling town proper (photos above). It’s a very popular tourist destination mainly for Indians, but there are a few westerners around too. There are plenty of tea shops but they’re positioned to sell to a tourist crowd (think Ghirardelli Square). A center point of town is Chowrasta (plaza). The hillsides are covered in tea plants belonging to different estates, but they’re difficult to see since its been quite foggy.
Darjeeling is home to the famous Toy Train which snakes through the main road alongside the steep hills and has the right of way over the crazy car traffic. I took I joy ride yesterday starting at Darjeeling Station and headed south to Ghoom. The distance was 8 km and took about an hour with a stop at the Batasia Loop war memorial.
I’m in Darjeeling until Sunday and then return to Makaibari.
Tasting my very own tea in the tasting room at Makaibari.
Left cup is a first steeping, right cup is second. Both had great flavor and aroma as well as a nice story. Just as I was sipping them it started raining. I savored the cups during a heavy Darjeeling downpour and was beyond delighted.
The next day Mr. Banerjee himself, director of Makaibari, tasted it during his routine morning tasting session and congratulated me on a flavorful and unique creation.YEAH
I’m a few days behind on updates due to spotty Internet options. Here’s a fun breakdown of what happens after plucking.
First: the piles of leaves plucked in the morning and afternoon. At the end of the day the leaves are placed on a ventilated tray. Fans blow air upwards through the leaves to wilt and remove moisture. The idea is similar to wilting spinach.
Second: the next day the leaves are rolled. Mass produced tea is rolled in large machines, which basically bruise and tear the leaves. Since this was a small batch I rolled by hand for about an hour. This way you experience the leaves and buds changing color and revealing their fragrance. After that the tea rests and oxidizes for about 30-45 minutes before being put through an enormous dryer to stop the oxidizing process.
Third: I joined the team of ladies who were sorting tea by hand. This is the hardest part of all the steps. Your job is to pick out little brown twigs and leaves that didn’t fully change with rolling and oxidizing. It’s like finding hundreds of brown needles in huge haystacks ranging from green to brown. But the best part was getting to hear the women talking (in Nepali) and laughing, presumably gossiping about the latest village happenings.
Fourth: after sorting you get to admire the tea. The right side is the bulk of it, the left is a subset of buds that I rolled in a more fine tuned way.
The whole process took a day. Throughout the day I got to work with several of the people in the factory as well as help with moving large batches of tea through the different steps.
These are just the core steps to making black tea. Other types of tea are variations on these primary steps. What makes for the best teas is craftsmanship and experimentation by makers through the last thousand years.
Today I joined a group of tea pluckers and plucked my very own batch of leaves. Nitu was my guide. The leaves are wilting on ventilated trays overnight in the factory. Tomorrow I go back to begin hand rolling the leaves. LIVING THE DREAM!!
Panoramic image of Makaibari Tea Estate, Kurseong, Darjeeling, West Bengal, India. View it big.
Everything is fine. I’m sitting in a field of tea enjoying the view, the sounds of the village, and all the bugs flying around me.
Flight 3 of 3. Air India from Delhi to Bagdogra. Then the final leg of the journey: a one hour ride in a taxi to the town of Kurseong.