The company had planned trips for me to visit tea gardens in Darjeeling, Dooars, and Assam. I was to accompany Peter Naharwar to Darjeeling, Harish Parekh to Dooars, and Prafull Goradia (PDG) to Assam. These were life changing trips with regard to my knowledge of tea.
At Darjeeling, we stayed at the Planters Club, close to the town centre and made trips to some of the JT clients in Darjeeling. Risheehat belonging to the Birlas was one. Darjeeling Tea is known the world over for it’s wonderful flavour. Insiders of the tea industry know that about 40 million kilogram of Darjeeling tea used to be sold per annum when only 11 million was produced! This was largely by clever blending with tea made ‘like Darjeeling’ achieved by a harder wither (removing a higher percentage of moisture from the green leaf before Orthodox rolling, and a harder drying process).
However, Tea Board came down on this practice and I quote from its website: “Only 100% Darjeeling Tea is entitled to carry the DARJEELING logo. While purchasing Darjeeling Tea, you need to look for Tea Board’s certification and license number, or else you will not get the taste and character that you should expect from Darjeeling Tea.
There is a rare charm in the taste of Darjeeling Tea which makes it irresistible. The fine wine of teas is ideally to be drunk from the finest porcelain. After all, these are the rarest and most prestigious of teas and are savoured worldwide. The delicate flavour of the tea can be savoured at its best sans milk and sugar.
Tea Attributes: The Darjeeling tea when brewed gives a colour of pale lemon to rich amber. The brew is said to have remarkable varying degrees of visual brightness, depth and body. The flavour emanating from the brew is a fragrance with a complex and pleasing taste and aftertaste with attributes of aroma, bouquet and point. The organoleptic characteristics of the Darjeeling tea brew are commonly referred to as mellow, smooth, round, delicate, mature, sweet, lively, dry and brisk.”
What makes Darjeeling tea special? There are several factors, the Jat (family / variety) of leaf, the elevation, the composition of soil, and climate. Originally there were only 2 Jats of tea leaf – China jat and Assam jat. China jat leaf was much smaller in size, but more hardy to withstand harsh climate. Another distinction between Darjeeling and Assam was the terrain the tea was planted on. Darjeeling tea was on steep slopes, making soil erosion a persistent problem. The problem with the China jat was that it’s per hectare output was low and even with the high premiums Darjeeling teas enjoyed, the profitability of a Darjeeling tea garden was always a struggle. I understand that the production has come down even further with unproductive areas being abandoned.
On the other hand the Assam jat leaf was larger and more succulent, and was higher cropping. Now, thanks to many years of R&D there are many clones and varieties to suit climatic, soil, and weather conditions. The tea is planted mostly on flat land making agricultural practices and plucking a lot easier. An Assam tea garden is a lovely sight and looks like a rice field with intermittent trees, from far!
While Darjeeling town itself was small and crowded, the scenic beauty around the place was amazing. It was the summer haunt of the Calcuttan who would fly to Bagdogra and take the winding road up to Darjeeling by car. There is also a very slow train service from Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling. A trip on it is a one-time experience to remember!
The pièce de résistance was a trip out to see the magnificent Kanjanjunga, the snow-capped mountain range which is the third highest in the world! It’s a kind of ‘been there, done that’ kind of place! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kangchenjunga
My next trip was to the Dooars with Harish Parekh. We stayed with the Group Manager of Goodricke. I remember that it was a large Bungalow and beautifully maintained by a senior Bengali couple quite British in their way of life. Tea served with scones and cucumber sandwiches – the works!
Dooars is also low grown tea in West Bengal and the production is about a third of Assam. I was happy to further build an already established rapport with Harish Parekh. He was friendly, and utterly down to earth, qualities that endeared him to the many people who knew him. He later married Sujata, who was an able and likeable Burra Memsahib during the years that HMP was Chairman at JT.
I had a vested interest in visiting Assam as an older cousin Mammen Mathew was now the Assistant Manager in charge of the Meleng Tea Estate factory. His young bride Walza had joined him and they looked after Prafull Goradia and I, very well. I felt privileged to be taught the finer points in Assam CTC manufacture by Mathew.
Mathew and Walza took us to the Jorehaut Club. It was a great Planters Club and buzzing with life! I remember the wonderful atmosphere and camaraderie among the planting community there. Many well known Tea names have sat on the Bar stools of this Club!
From Meleng we moved to Dhunseri. This is where I first saw ultra-violet rays being used over the Fermentation (oxidation) beds. This was to kill bacteria at a vulnerable stage in the manufacturing process. Of all the tea plantation areas I have been to, I found Upper Assam tea gardens to be more quality conscious than others, though there were exceptions in every district.
The owner of Dhunseri, Shankar Lal Dhanuka had Chandramalai Estate in Nelliampathy Hills in South India which, our Cochin office was handling. He was a benign patriarch and I remained in touch with him throughout my tea days.
From there we moved to some of the Jalan properties in the Dibrugarh area. I was introduced to a senior member of the Jalan family who was very hospitable. Prafull was close to him and we stayed with the Jalans from where we made visits to other gardens. I was introduced to fine Marwari food, which I still enjoy. It is strictly vegetarian but rich in ghee. A most interesting feature is that you are expected to start a meal with sweets. There must have been a good reason for this tradition which I have yet to find out. But since I love Indian sweets (considered too sweet by many, including my wife), this was a tradition I welcomed!
The Assam visit was quite long and extensive and I discovered how practical Prafull was. We shared a room and toilet which we would use simultaneously in order to save time, before hitting the road early each morning. So we would take turns when using the facilities in the Bathroom, one person showering while the other sat on the potty and so on. It was a shock to start with but once ‘the guard was down’, I was well on my way!
Prafull and I had gotten to know each other at Cochin, but the Assam trip made us closer and probably laid the foundation of a business association later on, though at the time such thoughts did not enter our minds.
The manufacturing know-how and the all-round understanding of tea I received from my visits to Darjeeling, Dooars, and Assam stood me in good stead. I was sent to assist our South India clients who wanted to change over from Orthodox to CTC. One estate that comes to mind is Malakiparai, a James Finlay / Tata Tea property in the Anamallais. I spent many days with the Manager fine-tuning their CTC manufacture.
It’s one thing to understand something through information that is out there. It is another to learn through physical visits and hands-on experience. I was therefore grateful to J. Thomas & Co to have given me so many opportunities to see, taste, feel, and experience life in all aspects of Tea. I am happy that I was able to repay this by my whole hearted effort to push the frontiers of our South India operations and later to open a Branch of the company at Coonoor. But we will get there shortly!