Opinion | When tea tastes like fine wine
The Darjeeling Muscatel makes for a perfect rainy day cup
It’s the monsoon and everyone’s bursting into song and dance about chai but surely there’s more to a rainy-day cup than a milky/sweet/spicy chai. One of the best alternatives is the Darjeeling muscatel, a cup of amber- coloured sunlight that offers the perfect antidote to a grey day. It falls at the other end of the spectrum from chai and there is no way you can boil it with milk or sugar. A tea friend insists on grinding his Darjeeling “to extract flavour". He is not wrong but I wouldn’t recommend it; it robs the tea of its poetry.
Delicate is a word often used to describe a Darjeeling—but unfortunately that makes them seem like weak watery brews. There is no single Darjeeling tea; there’s the prized first flush, the exciting second flush, the mellow autumn, even an in-between monsoon flush. Then there are the teas themselves—black (in several grades), white, oolong, green.... Add to it the 87 estates that are certified Darjeeling, each producing their signature flavours. That’s a mind-boggling range of Darjeelings, and not all of them are “delicate".
The muscatel is a seasonal speciality, a late summer tea with a very short harvest window. It takes a seasoned planter to recognize the leaves that lend themselves to a muscatel. Once chosen, they are handled with care to extract the flavour that distinguishes the tea. Oenophiles will recognize the connection in the name, from Muscat grapes, which defines its aroma.
The discovery of muscatel was a happy accident. In 1985, the manager at Darjeeling’s Castleton Estate, A.K. Gomden, noticed that the batch was unusually fragrant and quite unlike their typical black tea. Recognizing that he was on to something, he named the tea “muscatel" to emphasize this distinctiveness. It was a roaring success at the auctions that year. It’s now among the most artisanal of teas, and the most prized, with online retailers selling muscatel at ₹750 onwards per 100g, and easily going up to ₹1,500.
To steep a cup of muscatel, take a teaspoon of leaves (2.5g). Note the well-rolled, blackish-brown, sweet-smelling leaves. Allow a steeping time of 4-5 minutes. Choose a white ceramic or glass cup to let that glorious amber colour shine through. The aroma is distinctively fruity, with the grape-like muscat flavour accessible even to an untrained palate. No two muscatels are alike, and you may have to taste many muscatels before finding your preferred cup.
Castleton Muscatel tea is one of the best varieties available; the estates of Jungpana, Makaibari, and Temi in Sikkim also produce good muscatels.
Tea Nanny is a new weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is aBengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.