The wispy trails rising from my cup carry the aroma of muscatel that is distinctive of Darjeeling tea. I sip the amber liquid. The tea has a smoky flavour punctuated by a second aroma: a fresh, woodsy smell coming from a thin strip of green at the bottom of the cup. On cue, a lanky young man strides towards me from a counter in the dining room. “It is lemongrass,” he explains. “The delicate essence always complements the strong notes of a pure Darjeeling second flush.”
I am at Cochrane Place, a 19th-century bungalow in Kurseong, in North Bengal, 30 kilometres south of its more glamorous neighbour, Darjeeling. The heritage stay is a charming mishmash of cosy wooden cabins, expensive art, and tea-themed whatnots. Laltu Purkait, the ponytailed man now animatedly explaining the nuances of Darjeeling tea to me, is the resident tea blender. From his tea salon behind the patio, he concocts exotic fusions—the pale golden first flush or the tawny second flush brewed to perfection from the finest leaves from local tea gardens, blended with an assortment of spices and fruits. Two of his special brews won him the Times Now Best Foodie Award in 2011.
For me, visiting Kurseong—a 19th-century colonial hill station known for its tea and orchids—is a bit of a homecoming as I cherish fond memories of the summer holidays I spent in my uncle’s house here. The pleasant walks through pine groves on St. Mary’s Hill above the town, and the toy train rides past quaint homes and churches have remained much the same. And my early introduction to the world of “champagne” teas grown in the gardens of Makaibari, Castleton, and Ambootia, the region’s three most famous estates, has bloomed into a lifelong addiction.
Perched on a ridge, Cochrane Place seems to be stuck in time. Once the home of Sir Percy John Cochrane, a Raj-era magistrate, Cochrane Place has changed hands a few times since those days, including being owned by the royal family of Burdwan. Dhiraj Arora, a Kolkata businessman and current owner, has restored it to its former stone, log, and cast-iron splendour.
In the evening, guests flock to Laltu’s salon. When I’m there, he’s serving up four tea fusion shots, in between rounds of masala chai for a group of visitors, and chocolate tea for the kids. A plate of cookies is kept as a palate cleanser.
The first one is Laltu’s favourite—apple cinnamon tea. It’s expectedly fruity with two ultra-thin slices of apple floating on top. But the tell-tale flavour of a high quality second flush is unmistakable. The second shot is a delicious blend of Darjeeling autumn brewed with crushed orange peel. The third cocktail, an Irish Tea redolent with the taste of fresh caramel disappoints me, because it overwhelms the subtle first flush used to make it. The fourth shot wins with its mature textures of second flush tea interwoven with intense notes of chopped betel leaf. The tastes of clove, cardamom, and fennel seeds linger on my palate long after the last swallow.
I have always considered myself a puritan when it comes to tea. But the quirky blends made me consider this innovative way to contemporize the drink. “We have taken things a little forward here,” says Laltu, “keeping in mind a beautiful fact about tea: it absorbs the flavour of almost anything.”
Early next morning I set off towards the sprawling, mist-drenched terraces of Makaibari, the world’s first tea factory established in 1859. Since its inception until very recently, the gardens were owned by the Banerjee family. Rajah Banerjee, the present chairman, continues his family’s legacy with the biodynamic practices that he has introduced in order to grow top-quality organic tea.
It is spring, and harvest season on the manicured emerald slopes. Women sporting headscarves or broad-brimmed hats roam the hillside, plucking two leaves and a bud, tossing them into the wicker baskets on their backs. I take a quick tour of the Makaibari factory where tea is withered, rolled, dried, sorted, and packaged. My guide Ravi Gurung, whose family has worked in the tea gardens for four generations, invites me to his home for a cuppa.
Ravi’s modest wooden hut has a battered bench under a flowering rhododendron tree. I sit there, looking across the valley to the grey outline of the hills, capped by the jumble of Kurseong’s buildings. Ravi hands me a porcelain cup. As I take my first sip, a sharp, tangy flavour invades my taste buds, but the pungent bitterness is soon overridden by the delicate floral strains of first flush tea. “This is a blend of passion fruit with the season’s first harvest,” Ravi answers my questioning glance. I am incredulous about how he has retained the flavour of the leaf, given the strong sweet-sour flavour of passion fruit. Clearly the chemistry of tea is complicated, and those who have mastered it, are able to create strange and interesting combinations.
Darjeeling Tea has a clearly delineated seasonal cycle. After months of winter dormancy, the bushes come to life with tender leaves in mid-March. This “first flush” has an aromatic flavour and is the most expensive variant. By late May, the second flush leaves start releasing a dry, muscatel smell from their brownish tips and are ready for picking. The tea has a tinge of sweetness and full-bodied notes. After the monsoon, from early October, the larger leaves of the rich, mellow autumn flush are the last harvest before the bushes start to go into hibernation for the winter. Very rarely, there is a winter flush as well.
Appeared in the October 2016 issue as “New Fusions in Chai Country”.
Kurseong is 39 km/1.5 hr from Bagdogra airport and 42 km/2 hr from New Jalpaiguri station. Cochrane Place’s well-appointed rooms have vintage furniture and balconies with magnificent views of Khangchendzonga on clear days (cochraneplacehotel.com; doubles from ₹3,000). The elegant parlour has a collection of works by Hungarian painter Hugo Scheiber. Guests can order delicacies like roasted tea salad and baked ginger pudding laced with a tea sauce, on the patio. A stopover here for lunch or tea is worth a detour en route to or from Darjeeling.
Sugato Mukherjee is a photographer and writer. He has contributed to publications such as The Globe and Mail and Al Jazeera, and has received UNESCO's Humanity Photo Award. He is the author of "An Antique Land: A Visual Memoir of Ladakh" (2013).