Darjeeling tea

Among the happiest memories of my childhood, was my initiation into tea-tasting by our family servant, Bill.

This at Nedous Hotel, in Lahore — thus spelt, and not an hotel but apartments in my time. Which, with its gardens, towers, arches, porches, domes, … back quarters, kitchens and allotments, … was among the wonders of the world. All since demolished, and exchanged for the usual architectural obscenities, in the hope of making a faster rupee.

The occasion was a small tea party my parents were hosting. I remember it vividly. Three pots had been brewed, and set on a long silver tray. The large one in the middle was an Assam tea. It was flanked by a Darjeeling, and (most likely) something green and Chinese.

Bill poured samples into three small white porcelain cups, and invited me to study their colour; then to sip from each at full attention, gargling water in the intervals. Later, we graduated to blind taste tests, and I began to assimilate arcane information. I was six years old at this time, then seven. By the age of eight my views on tea were settled, and they have never been altered. I hope, and even expect, to die a Catholic (like our servant, Bill); but let me add with some confidence that I will die longing for another cup of Darjeeling tea.

It is not, however, the only tea I drink, or the one I drink most often. Rather, I “drink around.” At this moment, in the tea caddies of the High Doganate, one will find a choice of four, including a fine mountain-grown Taiwan wulong, a muddy but delicious Pu-erh from Yunnan, and my regular: a strong, masculine, upper-working-class Assam, that would be too bitter without a shot of skimmed milk, and small lump (in the pot) of half-crystallized buckwheat honey, or cane sugar — to bring out the softer, background notes.

By happy chance, I obtained a half-pound pack of Lopchu estate Darjeeling from a good grocery in the “Little India” neighbourhood, last week, at a reasonable price for its GFOP grade (12 dollars). For two dollars less I could have settled for the FOP, but then, were I willing to cut corners like that, I’d be the kind of man capable of signing an arms inspection agreement with Persia.

Let us be clear. There are six grades of Darjeeling, and the highest, Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (SFTGFOP), will never reach the Greater Parkdale Area. One will need not only money, but contacts to obtain it. Perhaps, fly there, and start networking among the estate managers. You can’t buy it at Harrod’s, because they don’t sell to Harrod’s: it would be beneath them. The Queen might obtain some, but then, she has a staff.

Each grade lower drops a letter off the front, so that my fine tea is of the fourth grade, just short of “tippy,” which refers to the abundance of flowering buds. “Golden” means that in the process of oxidation, these tips will turn a gold colour. “Flowery” is the term for high floral aroma. “Orange” has nothing to do with fruit, but refers to the Nassau family of Holland, whose most creditable accomplishment was pioneering the importation of tea into Europe, four centuries ago. The term insinuates, “good enough for Dutch royalty,” perhaps. “Pekoe,” or more correctly pak-ho, refers to the white down that gathers at the base of the bottom bud, an indication of the plant’s mood, its susceptibility to plucking. (Tea picking is an art; one does not strip the tree bare, but selects each leaf as it is ready.)

Now, survey your local supermarket shelf — let us suppose it is an “upmarket” emporium — and you will find in the tea section nothing but sludge. The teas will all be “blended” — which I esteem as blended whisky, or blended wine, delivered in tanker trucks. This will be especially true of the expensive boxes with whimsical names for the blends — that say nothing of date, terroir, or the specific variety. The tea inside the boxes will be packed in irritating little bags, probably with the absurd claim that they are “organic.” Once cut open, they reveal that the tea was ground by a Rotorvane, even before being stirred in a diesel-electric mixer. Various chain tea stores have sprung up, posing as effete, to separate fools from their money. Their pretensions are risible, and they annoy me very much.

I won’t comment on the “herbal teas” they also sell; except to recommend, to the women (including nominal males) who want herbal remedies for their malades imaginaires, that they take up smoking.

Rather, let us focus on the words, “Orange Pekoe.” They attach to most of the Subcontinent’s black tea supply, as to that of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (the former paradise of Ceylon). I have explained what the words mean in a series — not much — but standing alone, they mean less. They guarantee that the purchaser will receive, at an inflated price, tea of a low, coarse, common quality, processed by the method called “CTC” (crush, tear, curl), introduced in the 1930s by a ravening industrialist named McKercher (“Sir William …”), and now spread around the planet.

The machinery was designed for volume at the expense of quality. It makes no sense to put good tea in, and what comes out might as well be bagged. This is tea for the masses, who have no prejudice or taste, and do not aspire to the humane. Like so much else in our fallen world, the best argument would be that tea of this sort is “better than nothing.”

Here is where we must come to blows. Tea is by its nature a labour-intensive production, and the “orthodox” method from the 1860s was already industrial enough. The successive stages of spreading and withering the leaves; of rolling them under slight, fluctuating pressure; of bringing out the oils by enzymatic oxidation; then gently drying to arrest; finally, sorting through grids (to match leaf size, and thus infusion times and characteristics) — produced teas different in kind from the parallel, entirely manual, Chinese methods. But that educated instinct — skill, art — was still required at every stage. To eliminate these is to dehumanize; but it is also to impose sharply lower standards of quality; and is therefore barbaric and evil.

The business of cultivating, planting, growing and harvesting, flush by flush, I will touch on only briefly. Those who labour in the fields are, overwhelmingly, women — not because they are cheaper to employ, but for their smaller and more delicate hands. Children, once trained, can also be useful. Men find their natural place in management. Unfortunately, “industrial” (which is really to say, socialist) methods tend to corrupt these last, and complete industrialization corrupts them absolutely.

Let me use for my example here the habit inculcated by the goons of India’s state tea bureaucracy, who disseminate tea cultivars by grafting. This produces trees that are, in effect, cloned, and thus entirely predictable — quickly and stupidly. Thanks to this national programme, the tea industry has “benefited,” by volume alone, through the opening of gardens in parts of India where tea was never grown, and perhaps should never have been; and by the hastening of plants to maturity. (It could be worse; for the goons used to promote the most destructive pesticides available.)

But God never wished his tea plants to be grafted. He meant the trees to be raised, patiently from seed. A grafted tree can live, maybe forty years. The seedling can last much more than a century — there are tea trees in the jungles of Yunnan that have grown full out, to a towering height, and are several centuries in age. (And they present leaves that are fascinating, in their infused taste; but you must be a renminbi millionaire to afford them.)

In the magnificent Singell tea gardens in Darjeeling, there is a guarded corner planted from the original seeds, stolen from China by British botanists (masquerading as mere opium salesmen) far back in the nineteenth century. These trees, well over 150 years of age, are still yielding leaves of the classic, Darjeeling “pastry” aroma, with their silky liquid texture, and muscat undertones. No longer Chinese, but adapted through transfer to the fine soils, the superb drainage, the frequent mountain mists and seasonal variations of their new home. Moreover, seedlings (as opposed to graftlings) root much deeper, become hardier in themselves, and do not ruin the soil by pigging the nutrients at the top.

Unlike the lower-altitude teas of Assam, which produce a nearly constant harvest, the shoots and unfurlings of Darjeeling leaves are distinctly seasonal. There is first flush in March, second flush beginning in late June, and then an autumn flush after the monsoon, in October and November. Each has its own characteristics, and demands subtle variations in the processing techniques. The first flush is a spectacular affair, with a bouquet often described as “explosive,” and a sweet, fluttering and fading aftertaste that is sublime. The second tastes maltier and riper, and will appeal more to the peaty whisky connoisseur. The third combines these qualities, understated within a broader floral spectrum.

The plants hibernate in the winter season, rest dormant between each flush, and thus yield much less than their more tropical cousins. They are stressed by their harsher environment. But these are the very causes that account for their extraordinary flavour — for as they sleep they dream, and the richly developed aromatic complexity in the soul of the Camellia sinensis is held, sleeping, for sudden release as they wake.

It is for this reason that I call Darjeeling a prophetic tea.


A beloved friend has sent me photographs “before and after” restoration work on old Catholic statuary, that ended brilliantly well. In particular, one overpainted and much-abused madonna, abandoned “in the spirit of Vatican II,” has sprung back to most extraordinary life.

This is the constant Catholic cause: of Restoration. It strikes me that, while the world is so busy going to Hell, we should all as Catholics entertain ourselves by going idly about, restoring things. Even if tomorrow the devils come, to smash up everything we have done, we should not lose heart or patience. In Heaven, everything will be restored.

I take the same view, as a man of tea. Those who struggle to make the finest tea that can be made in this world, though outwardly they may be Hindoo or Musulman, Buddhist or Jain — or of any denominational persuasion — are in a sense secretly Catholic. Not in communion, be it plainly said, yet still in Christ’s mysterious company. They are reverent; guided by our Father Creator; tutored through His works. God will see them, and surely, find a way to save, when, in the fulness of time, they see and call upon Him.

This is, I should think, a “Benedict option” for our conduct in this world, in league with our brothers under the skin — to go about, patiently, in this work of restoration — of whatever is beautiful; whatever is true, and just; behovely; and of good report. To repair, patiently, whatever has been wrecked, with a will that is apt to disregard “market forces.”

The fiends, the Enemy, may come to afflict us, as he and his have always done. Never mind. Let us aspire to get on with our work, even in the shadow of the raised axe; or of the blade whose painful serrations will saw through our own necks. Let us not make too much of what we have lost, for in Heaven all will be regained; and in Hell, the devils will be vanquished.