The Other, Better Darjeeling: A Gift for Tea Drinkers
I still have pretty vivid memories about bringing first flush Darjeeling to the Deli ... probably 20-plus years ago. At the time it was almost unknown in the U.S. Not that tea connoisseurs couldn't have told you about it; even back then, it was described in most every tea book that got published. The thing was that while it was easy to read about it, it was almost impossible to actually find in North America. In fact, even then there was plenty of Darjeeling around, most commonly in the form of Twinings tea bags and some high-end brands that packed loose tea into tins. Nearly of all it, though, was not very good, low-grade leaves from the rainy, high-yield, low-flavor summer season.
We got going on bringing in first flush, which is harvested in the early spring, thanks to a very nice tea importer named Walter Jewell. I can't remember what year it was but I'm thinking the late '80s. With a long history in the tea business behind him, he set out to solicit a few specialty shops that would want to bring over an entire seventy-or-so-pound chest of the new season's tea. I have no idea how many shops he actually signed up—I'm guessing not all that many, but I know that we were one of them. And that's really, thanks to Walter, where my long and very good relationship with this stuff started.
As with most everything else in the food world the supply situation has most certainly improved significantly. Today there's first flush Darjeeling all over the place (at least "all over the place" in the way I experience it, which is, of course, radically different, I know, than how most folks do). First flush is in a lot of specialty shops and catalogs. You still don't see it all that often in restaurants (regardless of how upscale they might be), and it's not something you'll get in too many, even high-end, grocery stores. When you come across it, quality can be quite good, which I like, since it gives me a much greater shot at getting some when I'm out on the road somewhere.
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.
Having said all that, and knowing that there are certainly other good first flush teas out there each year (many or most of which I haven't tasted), I'm not going to tell you that our Jungpana is the only one worth getting. Tea is much like wine, and just as the wine world is now flush with good offerings, so too tea has taken off in leaps and bounds. I'm not generally competitive anyways, and I'd have to do a lot more homework to make any kind of pronouncement about this being the best of everything you might buy. But I don't have to do any additional work at all to tell you that the Jungpana is very, very good and a pretty exceptional tea. Vanessa, Sly, and I both agreed within a matter of minutes that it was by far the best we'd tasted in a long time. Usually, like I said, we take weeks to taste everything and decide what we're going to do. But as soon as we tried this one ... we called up our contacts and ordered.
Although it usually doesn't get to us 'til August or thereabouts, first flush Darjeeling is usually harvested sometime in April, depending on altitude, and by the time the tea auctions take place, samples get sent, and we sit to taste, make a decision on which one we want, and get it shipped over, it's usually pretty late into the summer. I suppose we could act faster but the truth is there are so many samples to taste and they usually keep coming to us throughout the spring. And unlike buying berries at the market (where if you aren't thrilled with what you bought on Wednesday you try a different vendor on Saturday), with the first flush, the one we've selected is what we're going to be sipping (or stuck with if it sucks) for the rest of the year. Which is why our quick consensus on which tea to take this year was all the more impressive. All else aside, as someone for who speaks Darjeeling as his primary drinking language, I will say that having it at home and at work to drink at will has been making me really happy. It's better, I think, than any first flush I've had in a long time.
Like all good Darjeelings, its flavor is more than a little bit difficult to describe. It's like a lock with 15 tumblers: starts out one way, moves back toward where it started, then back again a few more times before ending someplace unpredictably different altogether. To say it's one of the "mysteries of the universe" might be a bit excessive, but it is kind of hard to quantify. Giving it my best shot anyways ... I'll say that it's full in the mouth but that it sort of starts out by moving first from side to side, then from there on steadily up to the top and finally down the bottom. Nice long finish that sits well on the palate. Amber, but in a light golden kind of way (none of the smokiness of say, a Taiwanese amber oolong). Alive. Nutty. It definitely has some of the tannins that are typical of this tea. If you don't like that sort of astringency, then first flush probably isn't the tea for you.
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.