Darjeeling tea, like other members of its artisanal tribe serrano peppers, Champagne, and grana padano,exists through a combination of intimate understanding of natural forces, intensive labor, and lifelong dedication. The result is a small output of unparalleled quality. The town where Darjeeling tea grows, in West Bengal, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, is a setting of immense beauty, complicated history, and environmental fragility. Even transporting this precious tea to Kolkata, where it is traded 400 miles away down on the Indian plains, is subject to the whims of climate: monsoons and narrow mountain roads, often washed out by mudslides.
Does a tea warrant such efforts? In Darjeeling (Bloomsbury, 2015), Jeff Koehler explains why the answer is “yes.” There is nothing simple about Darjeeling, this single estate agricultural product. He weaves a web of stories: how this non-native plant came to India, how a tea garden functions, what the role of tea taster is (there’s lots of spitting, as in wine tasting), how many different colors a cup of Darjeeling may have (depends on the pour and the season), how many “plucks”–two young leaves with a bud–make one pound (10,000), and why it continues to hold the highest price paid at auction. For its success, everything depends on the deepest knowledge of unknowable factors.
Some of these factors threaten the future of Darjeeling: worker absenteeism, regional political unrest, erosion, climate change, balancing agricultural methods with its Western market’s obsession for “organic.” There are 85 tea gardens in Darjeeling. Glenburn, from which the Himalayan peak Kanchenjunga is visible on a clear day, is one of them. Its manager, Sanjay Bansal, says this about his work: “Tea planting is unrivaled in scope for creativity. It’s endless.” The book is illustrated with maps, archival images, and the author’s evocative photographs. And he has not forgotten to include several recipes for foods to accompany our cup of Darjeeling. Darjeeling has been nominated for the 2016 International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) award in the Literary Food Writing category.
Jeff Koehler is a writer and photographer whose four earlier books have focused on the foods and cultures of Spain and Morocco.
Valerie Saint-Rossy is a freelance editor, translator, and writer. She is copy chief of The Explorers Journal. Her literary translations from Spanish and her book reviews can be found online. Raised in a UNESCO family, she has broad international experience and works in four languages. Her editorial specialization is world cuisines.