So Many Teas, So Little Time

I am, by no means, a tea expert, but being a tea lover, I always look forward to tasting various flavours and qualities. Last year, when my friend and fellow tea enthusiast, Swarup, called me up to find out if I would be interested in joining a tea tasting event in Darjeeling organised by his company, I gladly agreed. It was, in fact, too good an offer to refuse. Plus, I had to be in Kurseong the same day for a meeting. I was thrilled at the way everything fell into place!

On reaching Darjeeling, I found Swarup waiting for me. He drove to me to the processing unit and gave me a quick tour around the area. Then, we headed towards the garden where the event was taking place. With the Himalayas stretched like a canvas before the eyes, and the cool breeze sweeping over the lush tea plantation, it was a mesmerizing atmosphere, to say the least. There were premium-quality Darjeeling teas in all shapes, textures, and flavours, and I realised that my taste buds are in for a treat.

Swarup introduced me to Tshering Sherpa, an ace tea taster in business for over 20 years. The charming middle-aged man, who decides the price of Darjeeling flavours, described the finer aspects of tea tasting. Three sensory perceptions — the sight, smell, and taste — are involved in decoding the grade of teas, he explained, as he led us to the tasting zone. The fact that the taste of tea differs due to climate, soil composition, and rainfall, makes the job of a tea taster even more complex.

Upon arriving at the tasting zone, I noticed a lady setting up samples of freshly plucked teas on a long table. She prepared 30 different samples by pouring hot water from a metallic kettle into ceramic containers with different qualities of loose tea leaves, all produced in this garden. Sherpa mentioned that the leaves need to be soaked for exactly five minutes before the tea is poured into a cup. The ideal temperature for tasting, to get the best flavour, is 40°C, so the tea should be left alone for a while to cool, Sherpa said.

As told, I closely observed the flavours, before sniffing and sipping one cup after the other. There was a bowl of hot water placed at the end of the table to wash off the previous flavour before sipping the next. But before I could finish tasting all of the samples, I had to leave or else I wouldn’t have reached Kurseong in time. I was rueful and all I could say was…“so many teas, so little time”. Swarup knew how much I’d have loved to stay and promised me yet another similar treat in future.

After returning to Kolkata, I got busy with work and life. Months passed by and suddenly on a Sunday morning, the doorbell rang. I found a courier boy at my doorstep, standing with a packet. I was a bit puzzled, as I couldn’t remember ordering anything. But yes, the parcel definitely had my name on it.

As I unwrapped the packet, there emerged a wooden box with the name of the garden I visited embossed on it. The tea sampler gift set, containing five compartments filled with top five loose leaf teas rated by tasters at the end of the tasting session. This was a gift by Swarup who also left a note attached: “Until the next tasting session”.

“Brewing time”, I told myself, but before getting immersed into the heady experience of irresistible flavours and aromas, I called up Swarup to thank him for the loose tea sampler gift set and the invitation for the next tasting event.

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Of Glenary’s, Gardens, and Gifts

The majestic scenic grandeur of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks, the misty, sleepy tea estates, the British-era toy train that whistles and chugs its way on a zigzag track, make Darjeeling frantically magnetic. It’s hard to name just one thing that I love about this place. Yet, one of my favourite spots during my trips to the ‘Queen of Hills’ has always been Glenary’s, a 1950’s bakery and restaurant that still holds on to its vintage charm. This year, it was even more special.

Moving up the red-carpeted stairway, I headed to the seating area upstairs that offers marvellous views of the valley and mountains. I was waiting for an old friend when the breakfast I ordered was served. The delicious sandwiches and the lemon tart — they tasted just the same for as long as I’ve visited Glenary’s. I can remember my 10 year-old self enjoying these goodies with a generous helping of hot chocolate, which I sometimes traded for the fragrant Darjeeling tea that grown-ups ‘oohed-and-ahhed’ over. But not so easily. “Kids don’t drink tea, tutun” — I was reminded every time I tried coaxing my mother to get me a cup of tea. My college-going older brother, however, was of what was considered a permissible age to order a cup for himself. My good-natured brother would take pity and offer to bribe me some tea under the table…not unless I handed him my lemon tart.

I was lost, deep in thoughts when I was brought back to the present with a tap on my shoulder. It was my friend, Bibek. I was seeing him after three long decades. And, in all these years, he had transformed from a shy Darjeeling boy into a warm and endearing college professor. His crop of greys and silvers flickered in the sunlight and he peeked through his rimless glasses. What didn’t change was the twinkle in his eyes.

Bibek and I met in college when he had come down to Kolkata (then, Calcutta) for higher studies. A friendship that started with exchanging notes grew thicker over the years. Perhaps, my love for tea and Darjeeling played some role in our friendship. On every trip to home, he would always bring back a box of lovely, aromatic Darjeeling tea fresh from the garden, where his father worked as a manager. But he always resisted when my mother offered to make him a cup of the same tea during his evening visits — “That golden brew is for special occasions, for special guests, Mashima. I’m not a guest, am I?”

The only time Bibek accepted a gift from my mother was when he topped his university exams. It was a blue and maroon sweater she had lovingly knitted for him. With winter still some months away, it was a pretty unusual gift for the season — I had joked back then. A week before the first nip in the air arrived that year, my mother passed away. Bibek first wore the sweater during her funeral service.

A particularly memorable time of my life is the summer I spent with Bibek’s family in Darjeeling, following my mother’s death. Her absence gnawed at me, perhaps, the most. Bibek sensed this and literally dragged me with him to Darjeeling. Looking back, that was the best thing he did and I can’t thank him enough.

The tender hospitality and care of his parents coupled with the calming walks through tea gardens and hill treks worked like a restorative potion that helped me heal. Every morning at crack of dawn, I watched the workers making their way to the gardens, picking the young leaves glistening with dew drops as the first rays of the sun peered from behind the mountains. On my last day in the gardens, I was handed a tea gift box set.

The pain of loss wasn’t gone — and will never be — but I emerged out of the darkness, knowing that life must go on. Thereafter, I moved abroad for my research and my contact with Bibek gradually reduced from a couple of phone calls a year to none at all. Six months back, we crossed paths on a social media platform.

Bibek again broke my reverie with a click of his fingers. The golden-orange light of the evening winter sky was descending on the hill slopes, as I looked through the glass windows. He smiled and signalled me to open a packet that he must have slid under my fingers while I was ruminating. A tea selection gift box was unwrapped.

It amazes me how gifts of tea have always arrived to me at such opportune times. But even more amazing is the message that a tea gift box carries: life is worth living, so savour every moment!

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Confessions of a Crazy Tea Lover

You know that old nursery rhyme about being a little tea-pot, short and stout? While the rest of my kindergarten class would revel in acting out each line, I’d be running circles around them. What was I doing? Pretending to be the tea that would pour out, instead. And that, in a nutshell, defines my love for tea. Leaving all rhyme and reason behind, my love affair with this leafy green infusion began young.

Perhaps, it had to do with the ‘specialness’ of morning tea — a luxury my parents seemed to enjoy every morning, and one that wasn’t ordained for the little ones. I still remember the first time I convinced my mum to let me have a sip. From then on, the two drops of tea that were sometimes poured into my tiny porcelain teacup made my day. Those mornings, I’d feel a little bit special, and a little more grown up.

Somehow, tea and I grew apart the rest of my school years. Not by choice, but only circumstance — I had long grown out of my tiny teacup, and I had bigger things to worry about. The never-ending stream of exams and tests, for one! So, when my class decided to pool in their meagre savings to buy all our teachers a gift after we graduated, I was surprised by my own suggestion. Maybe it was latent memories of my obsession, or maybe it was the opportunity to play with words – but let’s just say everyone immediately got on board. We’d buy a hand-picked assortment of tea gifts for our teachers, with the simple message – “We owe it all to your tea-ching, our dearest tea-chers! You deserve this cuppa and more.”

Needless to say, that day was made even more special when our gym coach slipped out a confiscated water kettle from his cupboard, and we all proceeded to share a memorable cup of tea together. From that day on till today, my love story with tea has only gotten headier and more complicated. Now, I’m that tea nerd who will instruct a tired roommate exactly how long to steep tea for, or how to put away a brewing basket properly. On a good day, I’m that person who shows up to exhibitions with kitschy handmade gifts for tea lovers, while on a bad day I show up to work with a tea stain on my shirt.

And then, of course, was the time that my two greatest loves — tea, and my partner — came together on one beautiful, star-crossed journey. I guess it’s clear that I’m a little bit tea-obsessed, and one Sunday brunch over tea, my wonderful partner got down on one knee and began to sing that old Doris Day song –

 Picture you upon my knee,

Just tea for two and two for tea,

Just me for you

And you for me alone.

So for some reason, the people in my life have put up with my obsession for tea, many have embraced it and some have become ambassadors in their own right! Throughout this journey, there’s one thing I couldn’t be surer of. Tea does bring people together. Whether it was a bunch of teachers and students leaving formalities behind and enjoying their last afternoon together as friends, or those countless times when someone needed a hot beverage after a tough day — there’s just something special about brewing and being together.

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