First Flush Foodish

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People often ask why I wanted to work my way around the world. There is no simple answer to this. Trust me I’ve tried. With every new job, hostel and travel companion, I attempted to answer this question, always getting lost in my reasoning and ending up making little sense at all. Perhaps I should work on a suitable soundbite or an answer in 140 characters? But the difficulty is that with each new experience my motives for working, as opposed to ‘food tourism’, became increasingly complex. My week in Darjeeling proved no exception.

After spending the first few days in Darjeeling, picking the finest first flush on the Happy Valley plantation, the estate manager hurried over to announce an opportunity few people ever get to experience. I would be joining the men in the factory to manufacture the leaves I had picked the previous day into my own tea. This was truly a rare honour – even the most important clients of the company simply observe the production. However, with time on my side, and my willingness to work hard over the week, the chaps felt it only right to allow me the privilege of following my tea from leaf to cup, assisting in every step of the way.

Hand picked tea from previous day's work.

Hand picked tea from previous day’s work.

Yesterday’s tea, had been laid out over night and blasted with warm air to wither and lose roughly 65% of moisture. Happy Valley use little technology in the process, with everything produced in similar way to that of the 1850s. The test for the correct moisture levels? Grabbing a handful of leaves and testing it by touch. Three separate workers came to assess the tea, all independently giving the same percentage of moisture loss. Production was ready to start.

Our withered tea leaves were then rolled to allow for the cell walls to break thereby starting fermentation (the process in which the green leaves turn black). Rolling is crucial as it releases the tea’s aromas and gives colour and strength to your cup. The rolled leaves were then laid on the floor to ferment – in this instance just for 40 minutes. (Imagine cutting open an apple and leaving it. Over time you will see the white of the apple turn brown. This is exactly what happens with tea.)

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Finally the leaves were dried and roasted in an oven that is over 160 years old to stop any chemical reactions and extend the shelf life of the tea. The whole process took barely two hours, quicker than I had ever imagined. The tea I had picked yesterday would be ready to drink just 24 hours later.

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One final task remained which was the sorting of leaves into different sizes of leaf. Some factories do this by machine. Happy Valley insisted I do it by hand to gain a better understanding of the different types of leaf size. So there I sat cross legged with the tea ladies sorting our baskets as the sun beamed in through the factory windows. After several hours straining to see the slightest difference between leaves, came the moment I had been waiting for – the tasting of my hand-picked tea.

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An old woman shuffled into the factory with a pair of scales and a kettle. As the water boiled we weighed out the freshly roasted tea leaves. As soon as the hot water hit the leaves, tea aroma immediately filled the air. They say a watched kettle never boils, so imagine the suspense of waiting for that first taste while the leaves steeped and the liquor cooled.

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Finally the moment had arrived. I raised the cup to my mouth, inhaled the aromas and slurped a big gulp. It was like nothing I had tasted before. The liquor was light and brisk with hints of fresh jasmine and a slight smokiness from the fermentation and roasting stage. There was no bitterness, no lingering after taste – just a smooth finish that felt almost medicinal in its effect. Was I drinking the elixir of life?

It is now some weeks since I visited Darjeeling but as I sit here writing, the tea from that day in the factory steeps in my mug. As I sip the brew, I am instantly transported back to Happy Valley. The aromas of the freshly picked leaves being laid out to wither, the sounds of the antique oven clattering as it roasted the leaves, and the dull ache in my legs at the end of the day picking up the mountainside. Why do I want to work my way around the world? In the case of Darjeeling, there are few things more beautiful in life than enjoying something you have created and the memories made in doing so.

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