Our work in tea takes us to the most unusual and some of the most beautiful places in the country. Imagine climbing 630 steps to reach a garden, or driving through nine kilometres of forest land in Assam to arrive at the estate, or riding on a ferry to reach the farthest corner of the country to find a tea that's truly sublime. Often, during the season, before dawn breaks, we set out from Siliguri. Most of the town is still asleep as we make our way towards the hills. Twenty minutes later, we are surrounded by nature - tall pine trees, rhododendrons, and, of course, the familiar swathes of green tea bushes. As the sun lights up the landscape, host gardens would have set up their tasting tables. We sip and slurp, tasting flavours of the land - some floral, some earth - no two teas are ever the same. It's all in a day's work for us, and it only makes us appreciate our favourite drink better. Here are some of my favourite tea gardens and their finest teas.
Among my fondest gardens is Margaret's Hope, Darjeeling, now part of the Goodricke family of tea gardens. The sign on the factory says 1864. A signboard at the exit reads: Thank you. You have just seen the best in Darjeeling.
This is not an ordinary boast. For those of us in the business, Margaret's Hope is a benchmark of sorts, when it comes to Darjeeling teas. Located at an elevation of 2,500-5,000 feet above sea level, the combination of cold air, reduced sun and oxygen levels force the plants to grow slowly, creating dense flavours as a result.
The name of the gardens itself is a story worth narrating. Originally called Bada Rington, the manager was Cruikshanck whose eight-year-old daughter, Margaret, once came for a visit from England. She is said to have fallen in love with the place, promising to return. Unfortunately, Margaret never reached England, falling ill and passing away on the ship back home. Her distraught father renamed the gardens, Margaret's Hope, and even today, stories of the spirit of Margaret are told and retold. My favourite Margaret's Hope tea would be their Exotic Spring White Tea. It comes from a particular clonal varietal called AV2 - a top of the line white tea that is worth the price it commands: Rs46,500 per kilo.
The Jungpana estate is a Darjeeling legend. The name comes from the story of a Nepali man, Junga Bahadur, who was attacked by a leopard on a hunting trip. Junga bravely fought the leopard, but it left him grievously wounded. As he lay dying, he's said to have asked for water and was taken to a stream nearby where he breathed his last. In his honour, these gardens are said to have been named Jungpana.
The only access to Jungpana is by crossing a wooden bridge over the stream and climbing over 630 steps to reach the factory. When you arrive, it's remote, isolated, and completely cut off from even the rest of Darjeeling. Shantanu Kejriwal, the owner, calls it an island in the mountains. I find it to be an almost mystical experience when I visit here. Add to it the fact that these high elevation gardens produce some of the finest Darjeelings. Their summer flush teas are almost a collector's choice, and the Jungpana summer muscatel never disappoints.
The Jungpana Spring Clonal has always had an extremely full fragrance and sweetness. This tea has been made with the celebrated AV2 clonal shoots. It is big on the flavours of succulent tropical fruits with traces of the more classic spring notes of aromatic citrus blossom. This year I was pleasantly surprised to find it full of tropical fruit and citrus blossom notes. Jungpana Exotic Spring Clonal Black Tea is priced at Rs19,550 for a kilo.
Temi is Sikkim's oldest tea estate. The credit for it goes to the last prince of Sikkim, Palden Dhondup Namgyal, who decided to plant tea in the kingdom. He sought the assistance of Teddy Young, a British planter who lived and died in Darjeeling. This was in 1969, when Sikkim was still a protected independent kingdom. Teddy, now remembered in Darjeeling as the last of the British sahibs, accepted the assignment and spent nine years planting what is now famous as the Temi estate.
The drive to Temi includes a long stunningly pleasant drive along the Teesta River. There is that inevitable stop for tea at a roadside shack before driving uphill to the gardens. On the journey, the Himalayas loom across the landscape, imposing and humbling.
Temi has been planted with clonal bushes, known for their exceptional flavours. The gardens are nearly half a century old, and now yielding a tea that's as good as a Darjeeling.
All tea is produced from the same plant. What sets one apart from the other tells the story of how the tea leaves are treated, the microclimatic conditions - Sikkim and Darjeeling are geographically close and yet their teas are unlikely to taste the same. This summer, we enjoyed a muscatel - which is the Darjeeling summer speciality - produced by Temi, and it was exceptionally good. Temi Summer Muscatel Black Tea costs Rs9,300 for a kilo.
Donyi Polo - named for the sun and the moon - is in Arunachal Pradesh. Just the journey to this estate is an adventure in itself. We set off by road from Dibrugarh and then cross the Brahmaputra to reach this part of the world. By the time we reach the Donyi Polo estate, the world has been left behind. Pristine landscapes take a whole new meaning.
The Donyi Polo estate is Arunachal's first commercial tea plantation. Located in the Siang valley, it's been planted with both Darjeeling and Assam clonal bushes. Its location - high altitude, remote and pristine locations - definitely adds to its exotic appeal, but the tea really is the highlight. This season, I have enjoyed their Oolong, a tea type that sets many stores on the craft with its mellow notes of citrus. Donyi Polo Summer Oolong is priced at Rs9,300 per kilo.
Shillong was once the capital of Assam and interestingly included by British prospectors as suitable for tea cultivation. As it happened, the Khasi ruler of Shillong refused to allow immigrant workers into Shillong. With insufficient labour available, Shillong did not get a tea industry. Eventually, Shillong became the capital of Meghalaya. In the 1970s, the Tea Board of India resumed the idea of a tea industry in these parts. Grown at a high elevation, Meghalaya's teas are also called 'cloud teas', because of the elevation they are grown in. They are famous for their thin leaves, a pleasant aroma and taste.
In the 1990s, Geert Linnebank, a Dutch journalist, and his Khasi wife, Nayantara, considered planting tea on land they had inherited, close to Shillong. They named the garden Lakyrsiew - awakening. It's a quintessential boutique garden, resolutely refusing to bow down to large factory practices. Lakyrsiew has obtained organic certification, works only with the local community, and insist on artisanal practices with a single-minded focus on quality. Their teas can be found on the menu of Noma Australia. I think their summer teas are especially good, and some season, we enjoy a most exquisite Black 'Cloud Tea' from here - a rare tea, produced early in the season. Lakyrsiew Exotic Summer Black Tea is priced at Rs14,900 for a kilo.
In South India, the Nilgiris are an absolute treasure of vintage gardens and gorgeous landscapes. My favourite has to be the Adderley tea estate. The sholas or the rainforests in these hills of the Western Ghats are breathtakingly beautiful. A winding road up the ghats brings one to the Adderley gardens which is part of the Glendale estates. Adderley also plays host to visitors to the Glendale estates, in its wonderfully cosy estate bungalow.
Again, as with so many tea gardens, Adderley, too, has planted clonal bushes - here, it's the CR6017 clones that bring a flavorful complexity to the teas. We especially look forward to the winter produce from here, when frost preserves and concentrates the flavours in the tea leaves, creating a unique and brilliantly flavoured tea. The Adderley Winter Frost Black Tea is priced at Rs16,750 for a kilo.