The first harvest of the year from Darjeeling; the champagne of India
March, in the Darjeeling province of West Bengal, north-east India, and hundreds of workers are diligently plucking the fine, brilliant green leaves of the Camellia sinensis bush and collecting them in wicker ‘dokos’—the first harvest of the year. The tea that results is some of the finest of them all. Darjeeling is the champagne of India, and its first flush—as this harvest is known—is the cream of the crop.
Its success is reliant, however, on very specific conditions. “Darjeeling is situated at roughly 5,000 feet and the altitude makes a difference to the tea,” explains Ratan, owner of Tea2You and one of few purveyors of PGI first flush Darjeeling in this country. “It means the tea leaves grow at a relatively slow rate, allowing them to develop more complex flavour.”
As with wine, ‘terroir’ and climate play an important role. “The plants need a good amount of sun—temperatures of at least 30C—but also rainfall of at least 230 to 250mm per year, and fog, which keeps the leaves moist.”
From garden to garden
Even with all these conditions met, the quality of the resulting crop is not always guaranteed. “Just as all wine from one province is not necessarily good, so tea differs from garden to garden,” Ratan explains. “People always ask me which garden is best, but it differs harvest to harvest. And you do not buy tea based on the name of the garden, you buy tea because of how it tastes.”
Ratan is always sure to try a number of teas before importing the very best of the bunch to sell; this year, however, he went a step further. “For the first time I made the first flush myself, with my own hands,” he grins. “It was very special.” And the process is not a simple one.
The same day the leaves are plucked—“there are no machines, it is all done by eye and hand”—they undergo ‘withering’, which takes up to 14 hours. “The leaves are laid out on long tables and blown with hot air to dry out,” Ratan explains. They are then ‘rolled’, a process of pressing the leaves to remove yet more moisture and trigger oxidation, causing them to brown and develop flavour and aroma.
The sorting room
The next step is fermentation. “The leaves are kept in what’s called the sorting room on thin racks in a humid environment, and left to develop further.” After that comes further drying. “The leaves are put on a conveyor belt-type machine and passed under 180C heat. It is important that they are properly dried, so they can be stored,” Ratan continues. “They are then sorted by hand to check for quality, put into bags and weighed.”
With such a nuanced system of production, first flush Darjeeling is a tea that needs to be treated with respect—happily, though, it is no more complicated to make than a regular cuppa. “Just take a pinch of leaves and add straight into the cup.” Pour over boiling water then, Ratan advises, add cold water “to bring the temperature down from 100C to about 80C. But you don’t need to use a thermometer—just add a dash”. No thermometer, no strainer—“it imprisons the tea; like wine, tea needs to breathe”—and certainly, no milk.
“Because it is a black tea, by default people think you add milk, but for proper black tea you don’t need any. It is tannin-free.” Its flavour is delicate, yet fruity—not to be masked by the addition of milk or sugar. Allow the leaves to sink to the bottom of the cup, settle yourself into a comfy chair, and enjoy.