Last month, I took my first trip out of town in two years. We made our way up to the hills of Kodaikanal, in the Western Ghats, where wildly attractive shola forests are a sight for pandemic-weary eyes. It’s the rare hill in these parts where no tea is cultivated, so there are no green carpets of neatly lined tea bushes. (I asked long-time Kodai resident and author Lathika George about this. Among other reasons, it turns out that the soil in these hills holds too much moisture, which is not suited for tea growing. These hills are coffee territory.)
Nevertheless, it’s tea that announces the proximity of the hills here too. Every tea stall by the road offers the lemon tea ubiquitous to Indian hill stations, particularly helpful for those prone to a queasy stomach going up or down (mostly coming down).
Beginning with that cup of hot, sweet lemon tea at Batlagundu, our last pit stop before the ascent, my week in Kodaikanal was punctuated by cups of lemon tea. As a town that caters to a heavy tourist clientele, there’s a lot of variety on offer when it comes to food. But lemon tea and its variations—honey-lemon tea, ginger-lemon tea and the ultimate indulgence of honey-lemon-ginger tea—are a fixture on every menu. It’s the sort of concoction that makes you feel like you have a hot towel mopping your insides.
Most of the tea—generally tea dust, to be precise—sold here seems to be from the Nilgiris. Proudly dust tea, evident from the packets available for tourists to take back.
It got me thinking about dust tea, which tends to invite derision from connoisseurs, no thanks to its unfortunate name. No tea manufacturer sets out to produce tea dust but it’s produced while manufacturing whole leaf, broken leaf, or CTC. These are the smaller, finer particles that are left behind, swept together and sorted as fannings and dust, the latter being the finest particles.
Tea dust is an important category in bulk tea sales. In fact, the south Indian market is known to have a preference for it. It’s what the small tea sellers buy and make because it tends to infuse quickly and bring a strong flavour to the cup. It’s far too strong to be drunk plain and needs the accoutrements of milk and sugar. Fannings and dust also make their way into tea bags. What they lack in flavour, they make up for in strength and short infusing time; dust from whole leaf tea grades is, in fact, quite flavourful and sought after for blends.
I found a packet of tea dust that had been relegated to the far corner of my kitchen shelf. I had bought it when repair work was on at home and the workmen had expressed undisguised horror at the orthodox milk tea I had offered them. I fell in line and bought a packet of tea dust, the only way to make the strong milky sweet tea they were used to. Now trying to recreate that cup of hill station tea on a nippy Bengaluru morning, I reached for the packet. Sipping the piping hot ginger-lemon tea with honey, I do think that it’s tea dust that makes all the difference.
Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1
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