Recently, a friend was reminiscing about how, when she was growing up in Kolkata, her father would buy tea at the neighbourhood store. Nothing fancy but it had a great many teas, all stored in chests, with every customer getting a bespoke blend because that’s the way things were. Her father would return home with the tea of his choice, ready to brew a cup or two. I don’t remember him saying the tea was from a particular estate, she said. It was always about how the tea could make you feel. And it was always Darjeeling.
I have a similar memory about coffee. Every time we moved houses, my parents would start scouting for a coffee source. They would ask for recommendations and seek a reliable man, who would procure the best beans and knew how to blend, roast and grind as his customers liked it. Shopping for coffee, as I imagine for tea, was never hurried, and it was always over a conversation, a serious one where questions were asked and preferences were spelt out.
I find many Bengali friends still source tea from their hometowns, from a store frequented by their parents, often a blend whose secrets are not known but which is familiar. These teas are never a single-estate tea. Allegiance lay with Darjeeling. From there on, the tea became the hero, not the garden. The idea of single-estate is far more recent, driven by a desire for provenance. And I wonder what we have lost during this shift.
As the first flush in Darjeeling ends, and in the absence of a friendly neighbourhood tea blender, I think about how to navigate the range. Here are a few tips:
—Darjeeling’s gardens make a variety of teas but their black teas remain the most famous.
—A blend from a single estate will not have the estate name. Blends usually go by names like Classic Darjeeling—these are good choices if you don’t know where to begin.
—The names of teas can offer more clues. “Chinary” indicates the tea is made from the Camellia sinensis sinensis plant varietal, the varietal that started the Darjeeling tea industry. It indicates a flavourful tea. The terms “AV2” or “clonal” indicate the tea is made from clones selected and propagated. AV2, probably one of the most famous clones in Darjeeling, is known to produce very flavourful teas. Both “chinary” and “AV2” are good choices.
—Words like “exotic” or “premium” or “special” are indicative of the producers’ attempts to differentiate one batch from another. The words themselves convey little but the descriptions can often explain if this distinction has been achieved because of the plant or because of the way it has been made.
—Ignore those who insist that you cannot add milk to a Darjeeling. There’s even a Darjeeling Masala Chai for the asking.
Roasted Darjeeling from Goodricke, if you like tea with milk and sugar. Classic Darjeeling blends from sites like Teabox, Vahdam, Teacupsfull. A great selection of single-estate Darjeelings is available on Nathmulls Tea. If you prefer tea direct from the garden, several sell directly online or via Amazon.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1