Darjeeling – What tea actually tastes like

On Monday this week, we received a care package from our friend James in London. Alongside The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, he sent us some items from the Borough Market — spices, a sausage that looks like poop, and First Flush Darjeeling tea. As you know from here, here, and here, I like tea.

Darjeeling is called ‘the champagne’ of teas.* It is a black tea grown in the Darjeeling region of northeastern India:

Fun fact: Darjeeling is right next to Assam, the only place outside of China that grew tea plants before the British stole them from the Chinese. They just didn’t know those were tea plants. But that’s a different story. Interestingly, though, Darjeeling tea, unlike most other Indian teas, is made from the imported Chinese breed of tea plant, not the Assam plant.

IMG_5049What makes a ‘First Flush’ Darjeeling? First Flush Darjeeling is harvested in mid-March after the Spring rains. As I can attest, it has a very light colour and a delicate flavour. There is also ‘Second Flush’, harvested in June. It is my understanding that the ‘flush’ term refers to rain. First Flush is the first harvest of the season, and thus the most precious and most delicate.

Darjeeling tea is usually a black tea; however, Wikipedia informs me that due to the withering process used in today’s Darjeeling tea, so much of the original mass of the leaf remains that many top-quality Darjeeling varieties could be designated as Oolong (which is how the Chinese like their black tea and which should, in fact, be infused like green tea, not like black tea).

The tea James sent certainly has some large leaves. Note also the pale colour of the tea:

IMG_5048Now, if you’re used to, say, Red Rose or PG Tips, you’d be a bit taken aback by this Darjeeling. As you pour the water over the leaves, it does not instantly turn brown! You must be patient and wait for the tea to steep. The package says 2-4 minutes. Sometimes I forget and leave mine longer. But have no fear — a high-quality leaf tea such as this will never become bitter.

This is what makes a good Darjeeling so great. What you taste is tea. The flavour that tickles your taste buds is the delicate aroma of black tea. These leaves have not been mashed up by a machine or swept off the floor. This tea is not dust. Look at those leaves! Look at them within a minute of entering my cup:

IMG_5046That make actually be two minutes later — it took a lot of effort to get my camera to produce something not horribly blurry.

Many teas are flavoured/scented. When you drink Earl Grey, for example, which is a Chinese black tea, you taste a lot of bergamot oil, extracted from the bergamot orange. Similarly with Anastasia Tea (from Kusmi in Paris), or a chocolate tea, or Lady Grey, or a vanilla tea (such as Bourbon St Vanilla from the Tea Party in Ottawa) — or whatever. The tea has been flavoured or mixed with something else. Now, I like all of the above teas. But, while black tea is the root and determinant flavour, you get a lot of the others as well.

Many black teas, on the other hand, are low quality. At my church on Sundays, they have resorted to the making of tea by the cup in paper cups rather than by the pot and poured into lovely china mugs. It’s too bad, but that’s life. If you leave the tea bags in the cup for more than a minute or two, the tea becomes terribly bitter. The first time I tried making a single mug of Red Rose, it was virtually undrinkable. Jennie says that the Yorkshire Gold that you get on a lot of trains tastes like paper cups.

Rather than getting the delicate, beautiful flavour of the tea leaf itself in most black teas, especially in tea bags (although that loose ‘Scottish Blend’ available in most stores here is atrocious), what you get is something with a lot of edge that is the result of the powder they put in the blend — the finer the tea, the lower the quality. The bigger the leaf, the higher.

Thus, many people are compelled to add milk and sugar or honey or bergamot oil to their tea in order to make it drinkable.

With a First Flush Darjeeling, on the other hand, the tea itself is what you taste. And it is a fine flavour, one that may be overpowered by the unnecessary addition of milk. I recommend it.

*Like how Canada Dry is the champagne of ginger ales, only better.

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