Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea

Darjeeling: A History of the World's Greatest TeaDarjeeling: A History of the World's Greatest Tea
by Jeff Koehler
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781408845929
Publication Date: January 1, 2015
Pages: 291
Genre: History, Non-fiction, Plants / Agriculture
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Set against the backdrop of the looming Himalayas and drenching monsoons, this is the story of how Darjeeling developed its tea industry under Imperial British rule and eventually came to produce the world's finest leaves. But today the industry is battling dropping production ,a violent struggle for independent statehood, labour unrest and the devastating effect of climate change. It's the story, too, of the measures being taken to counter these challenges and save India's most exclusive and iconic brew that are nothing short of radical.

A fascinating portrait of the region and a story rich in intrigue and empire, full of adventurers and romance, it illuminates the historic, arcane and changing world of this celebrated tea.

Winner of the 2016 IACP Award: Literary Food Writing


Finished this last night and it was a solid 4 star read for me.  It might have been 4.5 save for a dull chapter or two on the colonial history between India and Great Britain.  Lots of names, dates, and skirmishes, with back-and-forths between time periods that just made my eyes glaze over.  But at 19 chapters, the book had plenty of chapters to make it up to me, and it mostly did.

Written in a ‘feature article’ style, the author frames the book and its chapters within the tea-picking seasons, called flushes.  Spring flush, second flush, monsoon flush and autumn flush, tying the trajectory Darjeeling tea finds itself into the advancement of the seasons. These ‘preludes’ to the chapters are written in a flowery, evocative style that mostly works, although at times seems to try a tiny bit too hard.

In general terms the book set out what it meant to do: educate me about tea.  As someone whose circulatory system is, at any given time, roughly 75% tea, I was shockingly ignorant about my life’s blood, so the book was destined to succeed.  I knew nothing about CTC vs. orthodox teas (CTC is the mechanical process of cut, tear, curl, while orthodox tea is still almost entirely hand processes) and while I’d heard of Darjeeling tea, of course, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you it’s considered the world’s best tea, or that the vast majority of it is certified organic.  The importance when it’s picked has on its taste is also going to make it easier for me to find my go-to black teas; I’m pretty sure I’m a solid spring-flush kind of girl.

But what the author really succeeded in, was convincing me of the inherent romance surrounding the growing of teas in spite of all the challenges and barriers: the climate changes, labor issues and a fraught political climate in West Bengal. He touches on all of them in some depth, describing the ways owners are tackling the first two issues and trying to survive the fall out of the third, but still, it’s almost impossible not to imagine these tea gardens as romantic.

If nothing else, the book succeeded as a marketing tool: midway through I found myself online ordering 100g of a tea called “Gold Darjeeling” described by the Tao of Tea as a Light Black Tea, with a smooth, buttery, honey texture. Full-bodied brew with pleasant rose, muscatel grape-like aroma.  I’m off two minds about my hopes for this tea: of course I want to like it, but given that you can only buy it by the gram, not so much that it ruins me for all the other black teas out there.  Although, as long as I drink iced tea, I doubt I’m in any real danger of becoming the tea snob.

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