You can't go anywhere in India without seeing men and women sipping on small cups of steaming Indian tea. From strong, black pure teas to spice-infused masala chai, Heidi Fuller-Love went to discover the best of Indian tea.
The silhouettes of Fort Cochin’s giant Chinese fishing nets – as menacing as monsters from a Hollywood horror – sink into the pewter horizon behind us and soon we’re en route to Munnar. As the road climbs higher, the shade cast by mighty blue gums grows longer and a refreshing breeze flutters the bright orange petals of marigolds in wayside shrines. It's easy to see why planter families came to this hill station to escape Kerala’s heat and dust during the steamy summer months.
I’m heading to Munnar, high in the UNESCO-listed Western Ghats, to learn more about India’s tea trade. Doped by the overseas image of the British as inveterate tea drinkers, I vaguely imagined that the famous leaf was first cultivated in the UK. It comes as a surprise to learn that tea was first grown by the Chinese and its consumption for medicinal purposes was widespread in India countless centuries before the first pot of Rosy Lea was ever brewed on British shores. In fact tea didn’t become popular in the UK until the mid-1800s after the British East India Company discovered tea bushes growing wild in Assam and decided to commercialise their finds.
I’m a fan of Earl Grey and I’ve sipped many a mug of PG Tips, so it’s a further blow to realise that I don’t even know what tea looks like. As we drive higher into the Ghats, chauffeur Shijo points out sloping fields planted with serried rows of bushes. Connected by a network of narrow passageways, these tea plantations look a bit like the maze at Hampton Court Palace, but lacking the surprise element because the tea bushes are only waist high.
As purple mist inks out the soft slopes of the Western Ghats that evening, we arrive at The Windermere Estate, a sprawling complex with gabled roofs, polished hardwood floors and hand-embroidered linen furnishings. A gloved butler leads me to the Planters Villa, a luxurious wooden-floored complex the size of three hotel rooms with incredible views of the tree-tousled hill ranges opposite. Sipping my pink gin on the terrace and watching the fan whiz above, it’s easy to imagine the privileged lives of the burra sahibs, the tea planters, who lived here during the British Raj.
The next morning we drive out of the estate past woolly rows of bushes where women in ruby, turquoise and emerald saris nimbly pluck the tea leaves, flicking them into net bags that hang from a band tied around their head. We stop to watch them and one giggling girl tries to teach me to snap the teashoots between thumb and forefinger, but gives up in despair when I repeatedly crush the tender twigs with my clumsy fingers.
With its gentle slopes and pretty copses, the Kannan Devan Hills area is known locally as “India’s Scotland”. Parked outside the Kannan Devan Plantation Museum I watch schoolgirls in white shirts and blue pleated skirts playing hopscotch – it’s like a scene of British life from fifty years ago. Later, inside the museum, I learn it has been tea plantation policy to provide schooling, housing and other facilities for plantation workers ever since the days of the Raj.
We’re taken on a guided tour, from noisy airless rooms where fresh leaves tumble on conveyor belts until they wither and oxidise, to light-filled rooms full of large drums where leaves are baked to stop the oxidation process according to the type and strength of tea required. Most of the tea here is black, but with increasing awareness of health benefits green tea is now produced in large quantities.
At the end of the hour-long visit we’re given different teas to taste. The barely-oxidised white tea is fresh and fruity, the partly-oxidised green tea has a herbal zing and the 100-percent-oxidised black tea is dark and treacly.
Back at The Windermere Estate that evening I head for the tea room, a luxuriously rustic hut surrounded by tea gardens and palm-sized cardamon fronds, where I’m treated to the estate’s tea ritual.
As dusk filters from blue to black and a silver slither of moon appears over the fuzzy-headed Ghats, waiters clad in coat-like sherwanis poke up charcoal on a long cooking range. When the charcoal glows brightly they hang samovars filled with spring water over the coals and throw in handfuls of tea leaves and sugar. Then, when the brew turns caramel brown, they add basil, ginger, milk and crushed cardamom, heating the aromatic blend until it boils.
Served with nuggets of deep fried vettu cake and avalose podi (coconut-flavoured rice snacks) the syrupy masala chai is rich and satisfying – and it sweetens the knowledge that tomorrow I’ll be back in steamy, summer-struck Cochin.
Time for tea tourism?
For more tea tourism in India, you can follow the Darjeeling tea trail from the Happy Valley Tea Estate, discover Assam’s rich brews on a tea tour with Greener Pastures, or get your fix of Tamil Nadu’s aromatic blends during the state’s colourful Tea Festival in Ooty.