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Mellow or sparkling: what’s your kind of tea?

Mellow or sparkling: what’s your kind of tea?
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First Published: Thu, Oct 29 2009. 09 41 PM IST

Blind test: Judging tea is a difficult art. Hindustan Times
Blind test: Judging tea is a difficult art. Hindustan Times
Updated: Thu, Oct 29 2009. 09 41 PM IST
I am doing what wine tasters sniffily call a blind test. In front of me are two cups of tea, but not the kind you are thinking of. One is Korakundah tea from the Nilgiris; the other Puttabong from Darjeeling. Both are organic single-estate first-flush premium teas, which in plain English means that they retail for Rs8,000 and Rs10,000 per kg, respectively. Both are gifts. I have dusted off my Korean celadon cups in their honour.
Blind test: Judging tea is a difficult art. Hindustan Times
Writing about the fine things of life can be an exercise in frippery. Many of us, and certainly the readership of Lounge, have expensive hobbies and passions—for gadgets, motorbikes, watches, cars and cricket—that the rest of the world doesn’t care about. Korean celadon fits this equation. I can wax eloquent about their translucent crackle glaze complementing a good cup of Korakundah but for the guards in my building who do just as well with chai drunk straight up from a paper cup, Korean celadon is a pie in the eastern sky. They don’t care a jot about it.
Tea, on the other hand, most Indians care about because it is ubiquitous and egalitarian. Whether it is brun maska with chai at Dadar station at dawn, or “Nair, single tea”, at a tea shop in Kochi, we all drink tea. Except that we Indians do something that tea connoisseurs find scandalous: We add milk and sugar to tea, thus detracting from not only its taste but also its health benefits. The casein in the milk binds the beneficial catechins and tannins in the tea so they don’t get released into the bloodstream, thus nullifying their antioxidant effects. Citrus, on the other hand, increases absorption of tea’s beneficial catechins, which is why adding lemon to tea is okay. If you must add honey, I would recommend Himalayan honey from Under The Mango Tree, owned by a college classmate of mine. Ideally, tea, like whisky, should be drunk neat.
Nilgiris or Darjeeling? Which is better? That is the question. Does it matter? Connoisseurship at a personal level is about comparison and judgement. On a professional level, that translates to ratings and price. The reason Robert Parker is revered in the wine world is because while the rest of us are perfectly happy to quaff a decent Bordeaux, Parker decides the difference between a 97 and 98 point rating and its accompanying retail price. In the tea world, China, Japan and India all have premium teas but there is no particular rating system. And on a philosophical level, I have to ask: Are rating systems necessary or merely a “nice-to-have”?
For some of us, only the best will do, whether they are raw milk cheeses from France, Japanese kitchen knives, Italian linens, Cleverley shoes, Cuban cigars, Chinese pottery or Indian jewellery. Cultivating taste and luxury takes patience, a palate and, it must be said, a fat pay cheque.
Outdoorsmen and adventurers have a different approach. Ask a mountaineer which is his best climb; ask a surfer about her best wave; ask a rafter where he encountered the best white water. Chances are, they won’t choose. Each mountain is different, they will say. Every rapid is worthwhile and good, they will say, even if it is a dumb class 1 rapid on Mahim Creek. There is no best wave; it is all about how you catch it. These people are not being facetious. It is not that a rafter cannot rate the rapids; it is just that they are philosophically against it. They are in a sense, the anti-connoisseurs.
My approach mixes the humility of adventurers with the persnickety perfectionism of aesthetes. The fine things in life offer pleasure, but once you get to the top 5, does it really matter whether it is a White Bowmore or a Macallan 57; Banarasi or Kanjivaram; Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Monet’s Water Lilies? Using the same logic, does it matter whether it is Nilgiris or Darjeeling? I have to admit that all this glorious philosophy is preamble to a cop-out. I am naturally biased towards the Nilgiris because I was born in their lap. I am rooting for Korakundah tea, in other words. But I am determined to be objective when tasting these brews.
A tea fanatic reader in Mumbai drinks only Darjeeling teas. He finds Chinese green tea tolerable; Kenyan and Kangra good only for Russians; and teabags, “obscene”. Water matters—it has to be soft with a salinity lower than 200 ppm. It is best to drink such subtle teas with a neutral palate. In other words, don’t drink white tea after a robust mutton biryani. Waste of palate and money. This is why teatime makes sense. It is between lunch and dinner, when the palate has had time to settle.
So what’s it going to be: Korakundah or Puttabong? Well, Darjeeling’s Puttabong tea was more fruity and aromatic. The flavour bloomed almost instantly. Drinking it felt like dipping your nose into tender tea leaves. It was mild and well rounded with little or no astringency: the taste that makes your lips pucker up.
In Gurcharan Das’ compelling book, The Difficulty of Being Good, he quotes Bhishma who says that “dharma is subtle”. The same could be said for Korakundah tea. It doesn’t burst forth with a full-bloomed fragrance or taste. Instead, it lingers; takes awhile to bloom. If Darjeeling sparkles like a date; then Korakundah is mellow, like a long-term partnership, such as the one between haute couture designer Valentino Garavani and his lover of 47 years, Giancarlo Giammetti, as depicted in the documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor. Korakundah tea in that sense is more designer’s muse than vivacious date.
Call me chicken but I will follow the adventurers. Both Korakundah and Darjeeling are high-quality fabulous teas and it would be piddling to diss one in comparison to the other. But, in the end, if you must make a call, and I say this grudgingly: The Darjeeling is better.
Shoba Narayan prefers Korakundah for reasons that have little to do with the tea. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Oct 29 2009. 09 41 PM IST