Darjeeling is a dream of most travelers I know. For me it’s been one ever since I saw ‘Darjeeling Limited’. For it’s exotic character, for the legendary beauty, for the horizon of Himalayan landscapes and icy peaks of all mighty Khangchendzonga, for the cute little train that takes you up the steep slopes to this hidden but well know city. But it was when when I got a little bit more into my cup of tea, I have decided to make this dream come true.
Paradise in Clouds My travel plans came along so well together, that the ‘Darjeeling’ part fell just right in time for the First Flush harvest. And for the accommodation, my husband had suprised me with the most charming and soulful wooden planters’ bungalow of the ‘Singtom Tea Estate’.
There are many tea estate resorts in Darjeeling, but Singtom is special in many ways. Steinthal tea estate, which is a sister estate of Singtom, is actually the oldest tea garden in Darjeeling, founded in 1852. Singtom itself is the third oldest and while staying at the estate, you can actually still see some of the surviving bushes from 1852. They are only 10 years older than the wooden bungalow which now serves as a Bed and Breakfast. The bungalow is small and very charming. There are only four bedrooms - we stayed in the biggest, most beautiful Steinthal Suite. The moment I walked in I was blown away. Super high ceilings, massive rounded bay window with cushioned sill, and the most beautiful 150 years old fire place and a humble rocking chair in front of it. It is the best room for the mountain views, if you are lucky with the weather. Our weather kept the beauty of the peaks behind the thick vail of clouds throughout our visit, but hey! It’s Himalaya after all, not a tropical beach resort. The ever changing weather it’s what makes it so mysterious, enchanting and beautiful. And the resort itself was so charming and homely we could never complain about lack of atmosphere. There are a small lounge area for the guests use, as well as a dining room, and a huge terrace where you can enjoy meals, or a simple cup of tea while looking at the breathtaking Khangchendzonga in the distance, but that’s again - if you are lucky with the weather. The resort provides simple menu with purely vegetarian dishes cooked with the local organic ingredients. And although the menu is simple, the food is one of best we have actually tasted in India! Perfect balance of flavours and great imagination in combining spices.
Life of a tea garden Let’s not forget that Singtom is a tea estate. The grounds are very excessive, with a river and waterfalls within its borders. Obviously they do still run a tea factory that hires around 850 staff from the local villages, out of which nearly 600 are pickers. The leaves from their gardens are valued highly, but why? How does a year in Darjeeling look like from the tea lover point of view? Firstly, the tea bushes in Darjeeling, unlike the ones in the oldest Indian tea growing region - Assam, are the typical Chinese tea variety, camellia sinensis sinensis (Assam, has its own type - camellia sinensis assamica). They work very hard throughout the whole year, but they do get the deserved rest, when they go dormant towards the end of the year. They wake up back to life in March, when the bushes flush for the first time with bright green leaf buds. These leaves are the most important, they will be stamped as the luxurious and expensive ‘First Flush Darjeeling tea’. Just after comes second flush and it lasts until the first drops fall from the monsoon clouds. Naturally what follows is the monsoon harvest, and finally the last of the year - autumn flush.
First Flush - made for fame What makes it so unique is the processing of the leaves. First Flush teas are categorised as black, but once you open a packet you would probably be very surprised, as the leaves are still quite green in appearance. So what is it all about then? Traditionally Darjeeling was a black, strong and robost tea, as this is the way typical Englishman likes his tea. But in 60’s the tea was introduced to Germans and Japanese. The Germans were a bit more opened to a bigger range of flavours, and Japanese did not really drink black tea. Just then producers started experimenting with different processes and discovered that shorter fermentation/oxidisation and lighter rolling can unveil a whole range of more subtle and delicate aromas, and this is how the First Flush category was born. Usually, the black teas need a full oxidisation of each leaf. Usually the oxidised (bruised) leaf, will simply turn dark very quickly. The green tea leaf stays green because the leafs are roasted before the oxygen is given a way to turn them darker, leaving them unoxidised. First Flush teas are actually neither of these. In India the term of oolong tea wasn’t really known, so for the ease and to make sure no one takes this expensive tea for a simple green one, the tea council agreed to keep calling it ‘black’. In essence however, it is really an oolong tea, as it is semi oxidised.
All this technicality - the production process First Flush Darjeeling tea leaves are carefully hand picked, then brought to the factory and left to wither, and the withering time is the key here. The longer it takes, the slower is the fermentation process, which enables the full oxidisation. Then the leaves are rolled - rarely by hand nowadays, mostly in a special rolling machine, under a very small pressure and for short time. Then the leaves are left to oxidise, however because the moisture level is much lower than in the regular Darjeeling tea, the leaf still stays green. Then the leaves are roasted, so the oxidisation process stops, and finally dried. It all sounds so complicated, I know! But what it means for the flavor? First of all, the first flush buds are told to be slightly more delicate than those sprung from the bush later in the year, and that helps developing subtle, more floral and fruity notes. Secondly, the slight change in the process, in comparison with the green teas, when the oxidisation is not stopped before rolling, allows the leaves show a bit more character and release more tannin. In comparison with the black teas though, the fact the leaves are less moist when rolled and fermented, smooths the tannin out making them very elegant and almost silky.
Second Flush, Monsoon and Autumn In late spring the second flush starts. This time, the tea leaves are processed as any other black teas. The leaves are picked from late May to June and produce an amazing, well rounded, mature and fruity flavor of tea that is said to be less astringent and even better than the first flush. The leaves steep up a liquid that is bright with a taste that is full, round, and has an excellent muscatel character, and there is a small quirky thing that makes this tea unique again. After the first storms, the juicy stems attract small insects to suck on its juices. And the plant's reaction to the little creatures is apparently the reason for its characteristic muscatel aroma. After the second flush comes the monsoon. The heavy rains make the tea leaves grow to a very big size, and they grow fast. In effect, this harvest’s high yeilds are usually used for the production of commercial teas sold mostly in tea bags. Finally in October the Autumnal harvest starts. This time the bush is squeezing out the last of what is has to offer before it goes dormant for the winter. The leaves are processed in a typical black tea way that stresses its beautiful rich character. The rolling is much harder and longer, the fermentation also lasts for hours. The brew of this tea is what Darjeeling is most known for - a cup of rich copper-colored liquor that can be described and pungent, nutty and smooth in flavor.
How and where to buy...
You can always buy some tea from the estate if you are staying at one. And that was probably the only downside of Singtom - although they produce high quality teas, the choice available onsite was decent but not the most impressive. They selection was big, but the teas itself were blended and enhanced with flavors by one of Kolkata tea companies which sources leaves from over 200 different producers. The manager of the resort was very knowledgeable when it comes to the tea they grow but didn't know much about the teas they were selling. Best way to buy great tea in Darjeeling is to visit few of the small tea merchants in the town. They sell the cute packets and you then know exaclty when the leaves were harvested and from which estate. Golden Tips tea salons are also quite impressive, the staff knows their teas and they also can guide through the subtle differences in tasting notes between the tea gardens an the flushes.
There is so much more to do when in Darjeeling. Not only you can explore the Sikkim teas, eat plenty of himalayan dumplings called momos, but you can easily spend 3 days just discovering the city with its famous zoo, go for amazing trekking trips with sights of waterfalls and rivers running in the valleys, and obviously visit some of the most inspiring monasteires. And if you have even more time - go across the boarder and discover the mysterious lands of Sikkim. But that’s a subject for a completely new story!