Delicate Darjeeling is far from ideal, and much too expensive if all you’re after is a punchy cuppa that can withstand lots of milk and sugar. This, Jeff Koehler informs us, is the commonsensical stance of most Indians, which is why three-quarters of Darjeeling is exported.
In Japan and Germany, by contrast, the single-estate teas go down a storm and, the world over, self-styled connoisseurs describe it in terms usually reserved for fine wines. There are, we’re told, notes of apricot, toasted nuts and Muscat grapes. The stuff can sell for astronomical prices and it can inspire decidedly rhapsodic prose. Koehler is not immune to this temptation: Darjeeling, ‘like the finest female vocalists, can carry body as well as subtlety and grace.’ Blimey.
The history of this elixir turns out to be fascinating. Koehler does a wonderful job of recounting the establishment of British tea-cultivation in 19th century India. There was a conspicuous cultural agenda at play. As one contemporary put it, producing fine tea on imperial soil would help to ‘pull down the haughty pride of China’. The trouble was, while India had indigenous tea aplenty, it could not match the finesse of the posher product from the Chinese hills. Some extraordinary tactics were required. These included sending agents to smuggle plants, seeds and trade secrets out of China.
The tiny region of Darjeeling, ‘jammed like a thumb’ between Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim, was perfect for growing the subtler varieties of tea. There was a happy combination of climate, soil and altitude. The sparse local population showed little interest in the project but this did not deter the Europeans. Thousands of Nepalese workers were drafted in and estates were established despite the constant setbacks of disease.
Koehler paints vivid portraits of life among the European planters. They were, for the most part, of the middling sort – former shopkeepers, soldiers, and so forth – and they enjoyed a tipple. At the Darjeeling Planters’ Club there was a strict code for alcoholic consumption: beer from eleven in the morning, gin in the afternoon, and no whisky before sunset. Rules to live by, then as now.
Before we romanticise things, however, it is important to note that there was a darker side to the tea revolution in 19th century India. As Koehler makes very clear, it was part and parcel of imperial intrusion and expansion. Fortunes were made but ancient landscapes and cultures were turned upside down.
The Westerners did very well for an impressive period, but with Indian independence political factors prompted major change. From the late 1940s a large number of Europeans sold their estates to Indians (no bad thing) and those who remained faced new challenges in the 1970s: legislation limited the amount of foreign equity in any Indian-based company. The tea kept on coming, of course, although these days a host of dilemmas and uncertainties are on the horizon. Separatist turmoil in the region is not good for business and the spectre of ecological change looms large: the monsoons are stronger and the temperatures are rising. Most importantly, the basic model of Darjeeling production provokes headaches. It is extraordinarily labour-intensive and time-consuming. 22,000 hand-plucked shoots are required for a single kilo, and the processes of cultivation and refinement are mind-bogglingly precise. Sustaining the interest of a highly-skilled but poorly-paid workforce is proving difficult and levels of absenteeism are soaring. It is hard to blame the truants.
The future of Darjeeling is therefore uncertain but there are some signs of hope. An awful lot of tea has been falsely sold as Darjeeling but this most famous of teas now enjoys the legal geographical protection status afforded to something like Parmesan cheese. This will presumably deter some of the fraudsters.
Ultimately, though, Koehler shows that the Darjeeling industry can only thrive if it becomes as sustainable and equitable as possible. A luxury product that still captivates gastronomic imaginations and helps to create a profession as bizarre as that of the tea sommelier has a fighting chance of success.
DARJEELING: The Colourful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea by Jeff Koehler; Bloomsbury; £20 (hardback)
This review was published in the August 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine