Darjeeling is synonymous with tea. Predominantly, it was a tea town before it became a tourist destination. Like most Hill Stations it was popularized by the British. They found Darjeeling the right place to set up a sanatorium and a military depot during the mid 19th century. Tea was introduced and extensive cultivation was done throughout the surrounding hills. They developed a new way of fermenting and it came to be known as Darjeeling tea which is considered among the finest black teas. Sadly, the finest tea is exported abroad to many tea drinking nations. The Darjeeling tea that is available in the Indian market is nothing more than the poorest powdery form of over processed tea that leaves little taste or smell but strong colour.
The British have a great tea drinking culture which they left behind in India. As Indians we too have our own weird tea drinking culture. It’s pretty strange to drink hot tea at 45 degree Celsius, but it’s a common sight in Delhi. People from the plains are mostly unaware of black tea or green tea. I have a friend, who was admonished by his landlord for drinking black tea, (which resembles whisky) openly on the terrace. Most people in the plains like Delhi, UP and Haryana haven’t even heard of black tea. The closest they have come across other than the murky Chai(with milk) is lemon tea. People in the hills have deeper cultural attachment to it. Drinking tea creates a kind of bonding and it keeps them warm in cold weather.
In Darjeeling small tea stores are common as grocery stores. Two of the biggest and renowned brands are the Golden Tips and Nathmulls. Their stores at the Chowrasta are cozy and sophisticated. When you enter such places you realized the importance given to tea. One of the best things you could do in Darjeeling is to get serious about tea like a tea connoisseur. Varieties of tea are displayed in glass jars and you could even taste it before buying. Some of the finest organic green tea at Golden Tips cost more than Rs.800 for 100 gm. Golden Tips which was set up in 1933 specializes in international mail order system. The world of tea is a lot more glorious than we imagined!
The closest tea garden in Darjeeling in West Bengal is the Happy Valley Tea Estate. My first visit was spoiled by the unpredictable fog that came up from the gorges and cast a veil over the whole garden. Within no time it started drizzling and I was stranded in the no shelter zone for some time. The next day the weather was more favorable. The tea plants glistened against the sun and the new sprout of leaves looked radiant like the warm evening sun. Walking in the midst of perfectly pruned tea plants my heart bulged with some sense of accomplishment. A visit to Darjeeling would have never been complete without visiting it.
My final quest of drinking a sumptuous cup of Darjeeling tea was fulfilled at the Glenary’s (on the Mall Road) for just Rs.45. This tea is best served without sugar. I’m no tea connoisseur but it was indeed the best tea I have ever had. Nothing short of that glory would have been acceptable, here in the tea town of Darjeeling.