Opinion | Artisanal teas from Arunachal Pradesh
The cool Himalayan winds flavour oolongs, sencha and silver needles from a tea estate located in the north-east of India
The call with Omak Apang, who runs the 420-hectare Donyi Polo Tea Estate in Arunachal Pradesh, takes place over half a day. The signal is iffy.
Apang helpfully WhatsApps photographs of the estate as he walks in search of said signal. Donyi Polo is in East Siang district. In the north rises the Namcha Barwa mountain peak. The garden is on the right bank of the Siang river, which begins in Tibet as the Yarlung Tsangpo and enters Assam as the Brahmaputra. The Daying Ering Wildlife Sanctuary borders the estate. Until recently, one had to take a ferry to reach Donyi Polo. Now there’s a road, says Apang.
The estate was started by Apang’s mother, Yadap, in 1985. Arunachal now has 28 estates and 1,690 small tea farmers but its tea story begins with Donyi Polo, which has grown famous for its speciality teas and the record prices they fetch. Last year, their Golden Needles sold for ₹75,000 a kilogram. Proof of the garden’s exalted status comes from the fact that its teas are available at the hallowed Mariage Frères, the Parisian gourmet tea company set up in 1854.
Tea master Parag Hatibarua, a consultant with the garden, credits their success to the carbon-rich alluvial soil, the cool Himalayan winds, and the team’s love for innovation. Its wealth of artisanal experience is reflected in the Donyi Polo Tea Artisan Centre, set up last year. It’s run by the women who have worked on the estate and uses their experience to make speciality tea. A Tea Excellence Centre teaches the art to those who are interested. Donyi Polo also has a CTC factory.
On WhatsApp, another photograph arrives, captioned Junmani Baido making white tea. Junmani Gogoi Baido, who is in her 50s, has worked on the estate for 27 years and now runs the artisan centre with Renu Tati, Matu Phukon, Nirmala Basumatary, Anita Chetri and Champa Pegu. Chetri is the youngest, at 32, and Basumatary the oldest, at 62.
They make quite a range of teas: CTC, orthodox black and green, but also Japanese sencha, white peony, oolong.… “We can extract flavours of the Darjeeling muscatel, and even the caramelization of Ceylon teas," says Apang. The oolong, for instance, is made in 34 steps. “No short-cuts," he says. They also make the rare and bucket-list worthy purple and yellow tea. Hatibarua says the versatility comes from years of collaboration with tea masters from all over the world.
I have tried their golden needle and silver needle teas. They look gorgeous and are exquisite, more fragrant than any tea I have had. After my call, I make a cup of silver needles. Knowing that in a forested tea garden far, far away, with mighty mountains looming over it, Junmani Baido and her band of women have waited for the perfect leaves and the perfect day to craft it, makes it the most indulgent cup I have ever had.
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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.