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India is one of the biggest producers of tea as well as one of the biggest consumers. We make two kinds, orthodox and CTC. We export the fine orthodox teas, keeping the machine-produced CTC teas. We send away those exquisite whole-leaf teas, choosing for ourselves the humbler chai. And never once do we seem to stop and ask what the fuss is about when it comes to these “export-quality" teas. We assume they are too posh for our palate, without seeing if these are teas we would like for ourselves.

It’s the first flush season now and I would like to turn the spotlight on the orthodox tea. In Darjeeling, spring is the year’s first harvest, one that every tea connoisseur awaits. All winter, the tea bushes have remained dormant and tea farmers have had one eye on the skies, hoping the weather gods won’t abandon them. Was there sufficient winter rain? Is the weather growing warmer? Are the bushes putting out new velvety shoots? Will this be a year of great teas?

So much depends on the right climatic conditions. Like wine, tea is heavily influenced by the soil, environment, weather, the tea bush itself and in how the leaves are treated after plucking. And when all the moving parts come together, you get a tea that’s superlative.

The British East India Company, looking for an alternative to Chinese monopoly over tea, brought saplings from China and planted them in Darjeeling in the 1840s. These saplings took to the soil remarkably well, adopting new characteristics and turning into something extraordinary. What resulted was more than the Company had anticipated, the “champagne" of teas! Of course, now there are clonals and hybrids and so on but at the heart of it, the Darjeeling tea is a clean, pleasant and supremely enjoyable tea.

The first flush black tea is quintessentially Darjeeling—fragrant, light, not too astringent. It’s hard to get specific because no two teas are identical, and no two seasons are either.

As the bushes put out new shoots, these go into making some exclusive reserve teas. Around now is when Darjeeling teas make their season’s debut. This year, the weather has been near perfect, and a great harvest was expected.

Online stores have made Darjeeling tea accessible to the Indian tea drinker. Start with a classic black tea from one of the legendary estates. Some stores offer a sample pack of a few Darjeeling first flush black teas, which allows you to recognize the similarities and differences, and find a favourite among them. It’s a magical moment when that connection happens. Every spring will then give you something to look forward to, for a little celebration of your own. Because one thing’s for sure, if you are a tea drinker, it’s likely there’s a Darjeeling out there for you.

TEA TAKES

My top five Darjeeling tea gardens are Margaret’s Hope, Castleton, Namring Upper, Gopaldhara and Jungpana. For easy access, try online stores like Teacupsfull.com or Amazon.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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