There was 21 days of waiting between the death of my father and his Ghewa (memorial death feast). For the hardworker that he was, he would have been the first person to protest my sitting around moping for all that time. So on the final week of waiting I headed out to Dootheria tea estate where my good friend (I actually address him as “daju”, an elder brother) Yogdeep Gurung is the General Manager.
I was a kid when I visited Dootheria last time. A family friend lived here. I remembered walking over an hour on a “road” paved with rocks to get to the house from Hill Cart Road, the highway connecting Darjeeling hills to the plains. Surprisingly that road in more than 20 years has not changed.
Yogdeep daju thankfully took me down another route to the Balason valley where the tea garden was located. It was a precipitous road that took us from nearly 7000 ft to the valley deep below. We cut through Pussimbing tea estate. I remembered coming to this garden some years ago when I freelanced for Tazo’s CHAI (Community Health and Advacement Initiatives) project, reporting on some of the work they were doing there. (This was before Tazo was bought by Starbucks.)
The offices, factory and the General Manager’s quarters of Dootheria were far down in the valley where I had never been before. It was dark by the time we got there. We sat outside on the verandah of Yogdeep daju’s bungalow catching up. Turns out our fathers knew each other. Darjeeling being a small place I should not have been surprised. But I was. Every mention of my father now had a peculiar ring to it. The sound of Balason rushing by did not drown it.
Next morning a crescendo of birds chirping woke me up. On stepping outside, I was confronted with a magical vista of the valley ensconced in the bosom of towering hills all around. Beyond the curtain of variegated vegetation of the bungalow, the hills were all dressed in tea bushes. The factory behind was sending up smell of tea infusing the entire valley. Here you literally breathed tea.
The Balason ran just a few yards away from the front yard. It was amazing to consider how wide this river becomes as it hits the plains.
As I sat outside meditating on the beauty of this place, a staff served me a cup of tea. It was very well made. The classic muscatel notes of a Darjeeling second flush in perfect balance. How would you describe a muscatel? I later asked Yogdeep daju. “I cannot. It is something that is brought to you attention early in your career by your seniors. You drink it and then register it in the back of your head. How would you describe a perfume? It’s difficult...you just know it.”
Yogdeep daju has worked as a planter for over 20 years including in Assam. Unlike a lot of current crop of planters, he is a local from Darjeeling hills. He is one of the most generous gentleman in the industry I know. Aside from Dootheria, he manages two other gardens in Darjeeling.
Over breakfast we talk about the challenges and potentials of Darjeeling tea. Weather certainly has gotten more unpredictable, as well as the politics of the region. We also go over the basics of good tea. Yogdeep daju shares some helpful tips. “Bloom” of a tea is best seen against natural light, look for “evenness” in the color of infused leaves, a “touch of fire” is desirable in second flush and many more. Basics but vital. I will expand of upon these in my later blog posts.
After breakfast I walked over to see the workers plucking. As always the workers greet you with cheer. I am proud of this character of our hill people - no matter how hard things get, our smiles do not abandon us. This is the first round of autumn flush. Actually there is not much new leaves to pluck; they should be coming soon. I saw many bushes were flowering and laden with seeds.
I also went to the factory and went over the manufacturing line. The “roller-master” educated me on the importance of varying the pressure on the rollers according to the condition of the leaves. He also allowed me to have a sniff of the oxidizing (or as it is still called here, fermenting) tea. By smelling the oxidizing tea, a tea maker knows when the tea’s flavor has reached its optimum level. It is then moved to the firing or drying chamber. There is no standard time for oxidization. So just like when you are trying to prepare a perfect dish at home, a tea maker has to “taste” the tea from time to time even as it is being “cooked.”
One thing I never had seen before in a tea garden that I did here were zip-lines bringing in tea from the surrounding hills. Dootheria is a fairly big garden of nearly 900 acres. It is important that the leaves reach the factory as soon as possible so that controlled withering can begin quickly. So instead of hauling the tea in trucks here the tea is moved over zip lines that come into the factory from several directions. Nobody had told me about this so when I first saw a giant sack of tea zipping through the air, I thought I was seeing UFO!
And the end of my trip, Yogdeep daju laid out a tasting table for me. We went through the teas that had been made in the past few days at the factory. What a joy it is to drink teas so fresh that is has not even left the factory! We decided that the one particular batch of tea from Chinary bushes was the best of the day. It had a nice floral, cool, clean character. Somewhere in between a second flush and first flush - the best of autumn tea character.
I only wished that Dootheria was an Organic tea garden. That way I could have brought along a stash with me. But I guess at the end of the day I was still looking for a friend than business. I hope you’ll understand, dad.
NB: For more pictures of the garden you can visit our Facebook page.