A Romance Over Tea
Nothing has been more intriguing than coffee or tea, whether it’s sipping the beverage in question in the beautiful settings of the Tata Coffee Plantation trails in Coorg, or in the far reaches of the Himalayas, or in some fancy hotel or an earthy shack by the roadside. One cannot but admit that the experience is magical, no matter where it is enjoyed. Personally, I prefer tea over coffee. There have been many things in the culinary world of tea that have intrigued me. I like to drink my tea light and without milk. To me, that is the best way to experience this magical blend. I often wondered what we’d be drinking as our daily beverage, if it hadn’t been for that Chinese emperor who stumbled upon tea, or if the British hadn’t cultivated plantations in India.
Right from the magic of kahwa or noon chai on a cold day, to the memories of chai on rambling rail tracks, or the green tea that makes Tibetan butter tea to the herbal teas in ashrams, and the occasional stops along the hillside on a chilly rainy day, these are cherished memories for most people. What makes it even more interesting is the varieties of biscuits to go with it, or our very own desi snacks like hot bhajiyas, potato samosas, chiwda or simple khara biscuit - India’s version of puff pastry. The permutations of tea have also made one’s life a little more crazy I feel. That perfect combination of light tea with honey and lemon, or the addition of spices like cinnamon, cardamom and ginger lend so much warmth.
While growing up, I remember visits to the Philips tea shop and buying orange pekoe tea. Now, this tea, mind you, was not one of those that come in tea bags, but were wonderfully flavourful. While CTC tea may satisfy the masses, its flavour is something that I still haven’t figured out. Luckily, for tea lovers, high- end malls have made exotic varieties like white tea or silver tip tea, easily accessible to us without having to travel to the far away hills – though comfortable, this convenience does cost us some magic.
I consider myself lucky to be able to go beyond that, and experience a tea plantation, where I could watch the ladies carry baskets strapped to their heads tossing tender leaves at lightning speed that deceived me into thinking that the task of selecting just “two leaves and a bud” was easy. The smiling faces of the seasonal workers makes you want to sit by the path and have tea with them.
All it took for me to learn about tea was to spend a few days with Anamika, the proprietor of Anandini tea, whose parents own a magnificent tea estate up in the hills near Dharamshala and McLeodganj - two places I dreamt of visiting, having seen images in some old National Geographic magazine during my childhood. Seeing the tiny tea buds joined to a pair of perfect leaves on either side seemed like that was all there was to tea, but the story only begins here. Another surprise was the wildlife residing in the tea bushes from insects and snakes to ringed parrots and squirrels by the plenty.
There are probably many styles to brewing tea; what hurts most is the way the tea vendors make this overly boiled brew. Sometimes it tastes delicious, and at times it doesn’t – although the comfort it provides can definitely not be debated. Their equally rustic strainers of muslin cloth may turn away the faint hearted. So sometimes even a discussion on the merits of proper tea-making with them is short lived. Like scenes out of a movie I could imagine, the famous tea-making ceremony of Japan, as I watched Anamika brew some tea on the estate. She simmered water over a wood fire, then poured it into an English-styled kettle, added tea and steeped it for three minutes. She filled our cups halfway through, then topped it up back-to-front again for the last cup to ensure that the tea in each cup was evenly flavoured. “The tea in the top half of the kettle is light”, she explained, “and that in the bottom half is strong. So if we pour the cups full, some people will get light tea and others will only get strong tea.”
The tea she had made was a special handcrafted blend of green tea with rose and lemon balm. It was delicious and very soothing in the crisp cool mountain air. I was already falling in love with the tea estate experience when Anamika started sharing stories of the tea estates she grew up on. Tales of snakes, leopards, rogue elephants, the list was fun and full of adventure, making me wish for that life. Tales of willy nilly officials coming in to inspect the estate, calculating the right time for plucking leaves, the sheer energy of the estate during harvesting season. Its almost whimsical and magical the whole atmosphere of the tea world. Though I always thought that a hot cup of tea was romantic only on a rainy or wintry day, my visit to the tea estate showed me otherwise. My romance with tea has, in fact, just begun as the tea estates of the Northeast beckon…