Posted in Kafevend Blog
The days are lengthening out, the weather has brightened up and as the daffodils fade away, more and more trees are coming into blossom. Here at the Kafevend blog we've been thinking about the implications of the change in season for our old favourite, tea, and it gives us the perfect opportunity to highlight one of the world's most well known and best loved teas- Darjeeling.
Just as the cherry blossom festival is eagerly anticipated in Japan each year, so too is the first flush of the tea bushes in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal in India. To begin with then, what is the first flush?
Darjeeling lies in the Himalayan foothills and experiences some quite severe winter weather. For this reason the tea bushes lie dormant for three or four months each year. The first flush is the name given to the new growth as the tea bushes wake up in early spring. Harvesting the first flush involves picking the pair of leaves and bud that appear at the tip of each stem. This new growth provides the most tender leaves of the entire growing season. Less oxidation is used during their processing than would be the case with subsequent harvests in order to preserve the delicate fresh spring flavour.
This year the first flush occurred towards the end of February at lower levels, though it's the tea grown at higher altitudes that's the most prized of all. It was ready for harvesting around Easter and is available in specialist tea shops right now. Known as the champagne of teas, it doesn't come cheap, but for those who are into their teas Darjeeling first flush has a flavour that's well worth the extra cost.
If you're wondering just how high up the tea is grown, let's take a closer look. Dominating the scenery in the Darjeeling district is Mount Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world after Mount Everest and K2. It soars to a little over 28,000 feet. The tea estates in the foothills don't do badly either, all lying between 2,000 and 6,500 feet above sea level. To put that into perspective, England's tallest peak is Scafell Pike at 3,209 feet. The steep and rugged terrain where Darjeeling tea is cultivated, plus the challenges the weather can bring, mean that the region's tea accounts for only a very small part of India's annual tea production. This factor makes Darjeeling first flush even more highly sought after.
Finally, the obvious question perhaps is- why are high altitude teas a cut above the rest? For starters mountainous areas tend to receive plenty of rain, a key component in successful tea cultivation. Secondly, tea bushes fare best when there is a marked difference in day and night time temperatures. The cold nights have the effect of slowing down the growth which serves to enhance the flavour of the tea, giving it greater complexity and intensity. Add to these favourable conditions the fact that there's far less human habitation and vehicles about with cleaner, purer air as a result and it becomes clear that Darjeeling tea is grown in an optimum environment. Try some if you get the chance!