A Cup of Darjeeling

With characteristic brightness frequently likened to newly minted coins, fragrant aromas, and sophisticated, complex flavours — delicate, even flowery (more stem than petal, as one expert blender put it), with hints of apricots and peaches, muscat grapes, and tasty nuts — it’s the world’s premium tea, the “champagne of tea.”… Darjeeling tea is often sold not just by single estate like wines, but also by flush, or harvesting season, a term nearly exclusive to tea from the far northeast of India… While Darjeeling tea’s unique brightness and aromatic flavours set it apart from other similar types of tea, each of the four periods produces a tea with distinctive characteristics.

From Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea, by Jeff Koehler, Bloomsbury, 2015, 292 pages. A highly enjoyable book for everyone interested in tea, history, botany, and Indian culture and politics. Recommended reading.

I sit outside on my back deck in the early morning of this young summer, the sun still hidden behind a wall of tall cedars and birch, with my cup of tea, my laptop, and several books. I treasure these moments when it’s quiet, warm enough to sit outside, the air still, and my tea warm in its cup beside me. In this sheltered spot, I have a small, but delicious, freedom from the noise and the woes of the world for an hour or two while I read and sip.

I seldom drink coffee these days, and only then when I’ve been able to meet at a restaurant with friends some pre-pandemic mornings. Tea is what we serve at home. Black tea in the morning, two to three cups, and for me usually a green tea or oolong in the afternoon. Tea is a staple in our household.

I will admit to having a rather pedestrian palate when it comes to subtle teas (and for many wines).* I like strong, bold teas in the morning, like those from Assam or Kenya, well-steeped, and served with just a little milk, no sugar. While I may not appreciate the herculean strength of Orwell’s “perfect cuppa,” I do like a strong tea.

A package of Darjeeling teaEnglish Breakfast is a blend I generally prefer over the usual grocery-store blends. I also like earthy teas like pu-erh, and smoky lapsang souchong (neither of which Susan likes).

I am trying to explore more loose-leaf teas than I have in the past, when I more often went for convenience and simply dunked a bag into the cup. I am learning more about the blends, the vagaries of steeping, the crops, and about the tea-producing regions as I drink my tea. And experimenting a lot, since each package I open requires somewhat different amounts of leaf and steeping to develop to my taste.

Among the few grocery-store brands that sell in bags, I enjoy Yorkshire Gold, Twinning’s, and Barry’s (Irish) teas most. We used to drink a lot of Tata tea, but it was recently discontinued by the company, most unfortunately for us, because it was superior to 90% of those off-the-shelf brands sold locally. Cole’s isn’t bad, either, although not as strong as we prefer. Typhoo Extra Stong is also reasonably good, although hard to find locally.

At a pinch, when nothing better is available, I’ll settle for Tetley (although the latter’s English breakfast and bold blends are much richer than the stock blend; they also make a palatable ginger tea that, unlike most herbal teas — more properly called tisanes — actually has tea in it).

However, I cannot abide the bland brands that fill most shelves: Lipton, Red Rose, Tim Horton’s, or house blends as being mostly as tasteless as old dishwater (generally I’ve found UK brands are better blends than Canadian or US blends). I almost never order tea in restaurants because it is too often a dreary blend of even lower quality than these store brands, served lukewarm, and bound to disappoint the customer (and those little metal teapots were surely designed by someone who despised tea drinkers).

Margaret's Hope 2nd flus Darjeeling
A closeup of the second flush Darjeeling tea from Margaret’s Hope

But this morning I am at home drinking a Darjeeling tea of exceptional quality; far superior to what my palate is accustomed to. I could almost say it is delicate. I should have discovered it when I was younger, maybe when I was young enough to travel to India to visit the tea plantations. Instead, I can only imagine what it might have been like to taste it fresh. As it is, I have a vacuum-packed package of 500 g of this spectacular tea.

It’s paler in the cup than an Assam tea and makes me wonder if I’ve steeped it sufficiently. I’ve had Darjeeling teas before, but always blends of uncertain source and mixture (many such blends have minimal Darjeeling content). This, however, is a single-estate tea from Margaret’s Hope, a small, renowned tea estate located towards the north of the region at higher altitudes. This is, the description on the bag tells me, the second flush (usually picked May-June), graded TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe), which means it has a high proportion of the end or tip of the golden, plucked tea bud. This is a much better grade than anything else I’ve tasted. or bought (most tea bags are OP — Orange Pekoe — and made from dust and fanning, not broken leaves and stems).

There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life.
Lin Yutang

The second flush is described as:

Harvested in June, these teas are more fully developed. The liquor is bright and the taste full and round excellent muscatel. A superb afternoon tea that is especially good with scones and raspberry conserve.

French press carafes
Two French press carafes I use to make loose leaf tea: stainless steel and glass.

The dry loose leaf tea has a pleasant, slightly vegetal aroma that opens up as it steeps. The dried leaves are larger and longer than either the Kenyan or Yorkshire Gold loose leaf teas I have recently been drinking (which were both CTC teas: Crush, Tear, and Curl:  broken into little pieces and rolled into small pellets to mass-produce a “strong and malty version of black tea”). I suppose those visible leaves and stem bits are an indicator of premium quality; there were no definable leaves or stems in those CTC teas.

With each sip, I try to taste in it the flavour profiles that Koehler mentions, but while I can tell it is pleasantly different from my previous teas, I cannot find in it all those remarkable flavours. Perhaps they lurk below the milk I like to add to my tea, and will surface best in its absence. I can drink my tea plain, as I do green, white, and many oolong teas. I’m partial to adding a little 1% milk to most black teas, but this tea, perhaps, should be sipped on its own. A test for another day.

Perhaps, too, I steep the leaves a trifle too long for most black teas, bringing into my cup more astringency than necessary. I don’t really know. Each brand, each type of tea requires some experimentation to discover the optimum time and quantity. The flavour of this Darjeeling has proven more subtle than I’m used to in a black tea, so perhaps I should approach it more like oolong or even green tea, and have it without milk, gently steeped.

darjeeling with measuring spoonI sometimes make a single cup with a small strainer or tea ball to hold the leaves, but of late, most mornings, I have been using a French press coffee maker to steep more than one cup at a time. The presses, however, are not insulated and don’t keep the tea very hot (the stainless steel press loses heat less quickly, but still doesn’t keep the tea hot, merely warmer). I pour the steeped tea into a large, insulated travel mug and take it outside with me to enjoy. Yes, I am aware that tea in a fat travel mug is not as civilized or polished as when served in small, porcelain cups. When the queen comes to visit, I’ll find some porcelain cups to serve it in.

Looking deeply into your tea, you see that you are drinking fragrant plants that are the gift of Mother Earth. You see the labour of the tea pickers; you see the luscious tea fields and plantations in Sri Lanka, China, and Vietnam. You know that you are drinking a cloud; you are drinking the rain. The tea contains the whole universe.
Thich Nhat Hanh

I currently put three tablespoons of this tea into the press and add 750ml of just-shy-of-boiling water to get two full cups’ worth of tea for my travel mug. I steep it for four minutes, sometimes a little longer, before pushing the plunger slowly down to compress the leaves. The press retains about a half cup, or perhaps a bit more, of liquid in the leaves at the bottom, and above the filter. I can sometimes add a bit of that to my mug to top it up, but left on the lees for more than a few minutes, the tea quickly becomes bitter.

And, after several days of trial and error, I seem to have figured out the best mixture of quantity and time for these tea leaves to make a good cuppa for my taste, if perhaps not the best someone else might make. But as I sit outside in the early morning, listening to the birds and the wind, book on my lap, it seems just about as good as it can be.

Tea time is a chance to slow down, pull back and appreciate our surroundings.
Letitia Baldrige

Cleanup with the press is simple and easy: pour the remaining liquid down the sink (the filter keeps the leaves from falling out), remove the plunger, use a wooden spoon to shift the compacted leaves, and empty them into the green bin. The press and the filter rinse clean with some warm water, and not many of the used leaves end up down the drain.

Loose leaf Tata teasI have other loose leaf teas to try after I finish the Darjeeling, including two premium Tata teas I recently purchased from an online Indian grocery store. These are, as I understand the descriptions, bolder blends than the Darjeeling and, I hope, more like the bagged Tata tea we used to enjoy. I will, however, continue to enjoy this Darjeeling for another couple of weeks while the package lasts. And it’s likely the only single-estate black tea (let alone Darjeeling) I’ll ever own and make, so it’s a special time.

I’ll let you know how the new teas are in a future post.

~~~~~
* I like to think I have a reasonably astute palate for other food and drink, however, although that may be simply a conceit. I believe I can taste the flavours in hot sauces quite well, tell the difference between similar cheeses, and distinguish tequilas and mezcals with, if not a connoisseur’s palate, at least a modestly educated one. I like bold wines, too, like merlot, with big, up-front flavour profiles. But these days, I buy my wine in boxes, so what do I know?

Darjeeling close-up

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