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Tea Leaves

Trouble brews for India's 'royal' tea

Pandemic fallout hits Darjeeling and millions of devotees around the world

India's Darjeeling district is reeling from the impact of a labor crunch caused by the COVID-19 outbreak that has wrecked this year's harvest of its eponymous tea. For Darjeeling, which lies in the misty, emerald green foothills of the Himalayas, this is an economic and social disaster. But it is also a blow to tea lovers like me.

I have been hooked on Darjeeling tea since I was child, when a relative from the region used to visit our home in New Delhi. The lady's visits were much-awaited, not least because she always arrived bearing exotic Darjeeling tea packs as gifts. My mother would fry pakoras (spicy pastries) and we would gather in the garden to partake of this ambrosial amber brew with its earthy aromas. Each sip tasted heavenly.

Our guest would describe the beautiful plantations of her region, transporting us instantly to the precipitous slopes of the Himalayas and the snow-swathed peaks of Khangchendzonga, the world's third-highest mountain. Wild elephants and tigers prowled the valleys there, we were told, amid myriad Buddhist monasteries.  

After I was married, I was thrilled to discover that my mother-in-law also loved Darjeeling tea. She told me once that she had agreed to marry her husband only on condition that he would keep her kitchen well-stocked with a steady supply of her beloved brew, its prohibitive price tag notwithstanding.

Mom-in-law lived to the ripe old age of 93, and I suspect her tea habit had something to do with her longevity and good health. Plenty of studies have shown that drinking Darjeeling regularly helps people stay happy and healthy. From reducing stress to boosting cardiovascular health and regulating the production of cortisol (a stress hormone), the brew has acquired the aura of a miracle drink.    

The special properties ascribed to Darjeeling may be a consequence, at least in part, of its meticulous production methods. Cheaper tea varieties are produced using mechanized techniques intended to maximize yield. But Darjeeling tea cultivators swear by the so called orthodox manufacture technology introduced in the 1800s. Under this comparatively labor intensive method, chemical components are squeezed from the leaves by rolling them. The process ruptures their cells, helping the cellular sap rise to the surface and react with enzymes in the air, infusing the tea with a complex flavor profile.

Several rounds of withering, oxidation and drying give each batch its signature  variations and flavors, such as berry and Muscatel. Darjeeling tea, like champagne, enjoys a geographical indicator status and cannot be grown or manufactured  elsewhere. The cool, damp climate, constant mist and Darjeeling's high altitude create a terroir that contributes to the tea equivalent of the appellation d'origine controlee stamp on a good French wine.

Darjeeling tea comes in four types -- black, oolong, green and white -- but one of its oolong varieties -- Silver Tips Imperial -- is the most exclusive. Named for its silver-hued leaves, it is the world's priciest Darjeeling variety at around $2,000 a kilogram, which means it is not everyone's cup of tea.

Growers say that Silver Tips is always harvested under a full moon by pickers from Makaibari, the oldest of Darjeeling's tea estates. The correct alignment of the sun, moon, and other cosmic forces is thought to create optimal conditions for a harvest. Before plucking the leaves, hundreds of workers kitted out in traditional gear gather at sunset for a ceremony. Men pound drums as women dance and chant Vedic prayers to invoke the gods, seeking their blessing for a bountiful harvest.

Even so, Darjeeling tea's provenance is not purely Indian. Its seeds were smuggled into India from China in the 19th century by the Scottish adventurer and botanist Robert Fortune. Known as the "tea thief," Fortune would disguise himself as a Chinese merchant to acquire seeds, and played a catalytic role in setting up the tea industry in Darjeeling, where the young plants flourished in the temperate local climate. From a handful of plantations in the early 1880s, tea cultivation has expanded to 87 estates.

But this year, the entire industry is under threat. For the first time in the history of tea cultivation in Darjeeling the prime -- and highly exportable -- first flush leaves have been lost, and the valuable second flush, harvested in May and June, has been impaired. As a result, many of the world's most sought-after teas will not be produced, imposing heavy losses on the growers.  

When the coronavirus scare has retreated these peerless teas will no doubt recover their prime position among global tea connoisseurs. This year, though, is going to be difficult for both the growers in Darjeeling and loyal customers like me.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based writer 

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