The financial year eventually came to an end and being a manager of a notable IT firm, I was content because the Q4 results were pretty satisfactory. But what really pumped me up was a road trip to Darjeeling with my childhood buddies Ryan, Kabir and Simon that we had planned since ages. Finally it was happening and I could feel the child in me coming alive!
We decided to travel in our 1955 Morris Oxford series III that my grandpa had passed on to my dad. The journey started with the ignition of the Morris and off we rolled recalling the long lost childhood memories. We reached Siliguri the next day from where we could almost smell the snowcapped hills and fresh tea gardens.
Our car grumbled past the cityscape and moved across the entwining hilly terrain. After a 3 hour drive we finally reached Puttabong, where we took a small halt before reaching Darjeeling. Road journey especially in the hills is hectic and we could feel it. All of us were seemingly tired and went into a road side eatery for some refreshments. Since there was a space crunch we had to share the table with two other gentlemen. One of them later introduced himself as Gopal Somani, a Tea garden manager at the Puttabong Tea Estate, which is spread across 9 rolling hills, over an area of 22 kms. We were talking about the roads, then politics and eventually on Darjeeling tea and what makes it so famous all over the world.
Mr. Somani was a garrulous man and he started sharing his story and about the life in the garden. He also talked to us about the specialty of his garden and on the ways of producing tea. He said “this is the season for first flush Darjeeling tea” and spoke about its rich taste and aroma. Since, we were not tea connoisseurs, we could hardly understand why he spoke so highly of this variety.
And then, something awesome happened. He offered us a night’s stay at his bungalow so that we could get a feel of the garden and a taste of first flush. More than the tea, it was the experience that wowed us. Initially we were a little hesitant but then we gave in to the offer owing to his humbleness. We left the eatery and headed towards his bungalow. It was merely a kilometer from there. It is located at an altitude of 1500 to 6500 feet and is spread across 22 kilometers, right up to the snow fed Rangeet river. ‘Puttabong’ literally means a house of green leaves.
It was a lovely bungalow with a picturesque setting at the backdrop. There were small cottages too in the vicinity, which belonged to the tea workers. Mr. Somani took us for a stroll in the tea garden while he explained what first flush Darjeeling tea was. He said that First Flush is referred to the first harvest of tea that usually takes place between February and May. There is also a special way of plucking first flush tea leaves. Two leaves and a bud are plucked together.
We then asked what made first flush Darjeeling Tea so Special?
It has a floral aroma with a mellow taste and feels sweet on the pallet.
Mr. Somani replied that these leaves are green and the texture of the liquor is bright and yellow. It has an astringent flavor with a fresh floral aroma. The first flush Darjeeling tea is usually less oxidized while it is processed, which adds to its bright colour. The gentleman added that the climatic condition of Darjeeling was such that it produced the finest quality of tea in the world. The amount of rainfall, the soil and the weather conditions makes this place conducive for tea production. Mr. Somani then ordered a table and a few chairs to his attendant and also asked him “jaldi se 5 cup first flush banao” (make 5 cups of first flush fast).
Meanwhile, Mr. Somani explained that the Puttabong garden is planted with Darjeeling Clonal, Chinary bushes and clonal tea stock which was specially developed to meet the agro climatic conditions of that particular tea growing area. Back in 1992, tea from this estate fetched a whopping Rupees 10,001 per Kg. at a tea auction and that was something unprecedented.
The attendant made the arrangements and came with tea within the next 15 minutes. We were all very excited. I mean, who wouldn’t be? Such a pleasant surprise was far from what we had expected! I was eager to take the first sip of what people called the ‘champagne of teas’. It was a white porcelain teapot from which he poured the tea to five white porcelain tea cups. It was 2:30 in the afternoon and there was a bright sunlight all around. I could see the golden hue. As I brought the cuppa close to my mouth, I could smell a mild waft of aroma and then eventually took the first sip.
‘Wow, this is awesome’ is what I said and it really, really was that awesome! The entire day’s tiredness seemed to vanish instantaneously. The aroma was just out of this world and even today while I write this blog, I could smell that ecstasy. I somehow felt and my friends agreed as well that the first flush tea had a musky-sweet taste note. Mr. Somani too agreed to what I thought and said that the subtle taste of the first flush Darjeeling tea varied from one tea estate to another. “There are other teas that tasted fruity as well.” he added.
The rest of the day was spent in the comfort of his bungalow where he gave us more insights on the health benefits of tea and how modern researches have shown that tea removes free radicals from the human body. The next day we bade adieu to the wonderful human being and continued our journey to Darjeeling. That was our rendezvous with the humble manager of the Puttabong tea estate and it was one affair that I cherish even today.