The Other, Better Darjeeling: A Gift for Tea Drinkers

I happen to like tannins—big red wines, very dark chocolates, and strong black tea all have them, and I like all of those. If you like a rounder, more balanced, more classically correct Darjeeling I'd say you should skip this one and go straight to a slightly calmer, better behaved, second flush tea. I like those a lot too. The one we've got from the Castleton Garden is very good. But first flush is still my first love. I've described it before (and I'm about to again here) as being "intentionally out of balance." It takes all the greenness, sharp edges, edgy beats, free jazz, cutting edge, slightly-crazy-but-in-a-supremely-endearing-way stuff about Darjeeling and puts it out front where you can get it, one amber-colored cup at a time. It's like speed without all the substance. Bold color without great contrast. Poetry with rhythm but no rhyme, or a sentence full of swear words but not much else (you know what I mean). Good stuff that stands out and understandably alienates a lot of people but is compelling to those ... to those, like me, for whom it's compelling.

Anyway, a couple more things to know. First is about the estate. I've never been to India let alone to Jungpana but from what I know the garden is in the northern part of West Bengal, which, counterintuitively to those of us who don't know any better, is actually on the eastern end of India. The estate is way up there .... In India it's called "the back of beyond" (which might be what we should start calling the Upper Peninsula here in Michigan). It's on the border with Sikkim and not all that far from Bhutan to the east and China to the north.

The garden got its formal start with the work of one Henry Montgomery, a British expatriate who planted the first bushes all the way back in 1899. A series of owners have had it in their trust over the last hundred years, the Kejriwal family for the last 50-plus. Even by mountain standards the Jungpana garden is particularly hard to get to. Until just recently there was no road—the tea came out and supplies went in only by mule. Today the tea still has to be carried down 500 feet on 380 concrete steps to get to the road. Makes finding one's way around Ann Arbor's one-way streets to get to the Deli look incredibly easy.

It sounds pretty amazing, if never the less extreme, in its isolation. The topography, by the way, adds a lot to the cost of Darjeeling; mountainous terrain densely packed with pine trees and brush make planting and picking exceptionally difficult. Tea grown on more level terrain is far easier and less costly to gather, but the flavor is typically less interesting; tea bushes that have to fight harder tend to produce better-tasting tea. Leopards, deer, birds, and butterflies are said to abound on the estate. You can taste all of them in the tea when you brew it. Well, not really. That was a joke. But actually ... if you use your imagination ... or at least if I use mine ... I can kind of imagine all of them in there. The flavor of the tea does sort of sing like a bird and dart 'round the mouth like a deer, all done with the speed and boldness of a leopard. The aroma, I might add, lingers lightly like a butterfly flitting over top of the cup.

Ok, I'm weird. But there you have it. Supposedly they have bears at Jungpana too but I'm not sure how to fit them into the flavor other than that first flush, like bears, basically comes out of hibernation each spring. I hope the tea makes you as happy as its been making me for the months since its arrival.

Presented by

Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.

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