The high-grown black teas from the Nilgiri (“Blue Mountains” in Tamil) of southern India are among the finest produced anywhere. Just as the British officials of Calcutta took to the hills of Darjeeling for summer coolness, Raj officials in Madras retreated to Ootacamund, or “Ooty,” the hill station in the Nilgiri district, which remains today a picture-postcard bit of England set amidst mountain mist and tea garden green. Experimental plantings of China jat had been thriving since 1835 in the elephant-infested Nilgiri Mountain jungles when the first tea plantation, today’s Coonoor Tea Estate, was opened up in 1854 by a certain Mr. Mann, who planted Robert Fortune’s China seeds. His success inspired the opening of Dunsandale in 1859, and others rapidly followed so that total acreage had risen above 3000 acres by 1898, slower and smaller than Darjeeling’s expansion but equally promising. The surrounding mountain range, which overlooks the Indian Ocean facing Africa, gradually became home to several hundred tea estates at elevations of one thousand to six thousand feet, comparable with those of Darjeeling. The district has only about ten thousand more acres in tea than Darjeeling does, but it produces almost four times as much thanks to its more tropical location. Nilgiri’s best tea is produced between monsoons during the dry December/March Quality Season, when perhaps 35 percent of the year’s harvest is plucked. These are designated Seasonal Teas.
Although Nilgiri tea was eclipsed by India’s other teas soon after Indian Independence and has never recovered either in prestige or price, this forgotten tea of south India can again be seen and appreciated in the West after decades when it was destined only for Eastern Europe and Russia. In India itself, Nilgiri has long been used in the blend for making chai to bring down the cost. Chai (widely known as masala chai or spice tea) enjoyed from morning to night by millions of Indians, is a tea-based drink completely adulterated with spices and mixed with overboiled and overcooked milk. It is the uttermost opposite of pure, unblended tea, but part of its traditional allure comes from the fragrance and taste of humble Nilgiri.
Drinking Nilgiri is rather like discovering the wines of Chile: who could have guessed? It is a soft, untannic tea like Ceylon in many ways, but with a woodsy fragrance unlike any other. Nilgiri is the most forgiving black tea made, impossible to oversteep, but it must be admitted it is also prone to fading within a year of manufacture, losing much aroma. The best quality teas are always of Orthodox manufacture. The Orange Pekoe and Broken Orange Pekoe grades from great gardens are some of the world’s most beautiful leaf, always stylish and well twisted. Quality consciousness is often absent in Nilgiri, but among the great gardens I might mention Burnside, Chamraj, Craigmore, Dunsandale, Havukal, Tiger Hill – to go no further – as producers of a black tea that can be splendid, yet humble and self-effacing as a saint, perfect for afternoon companionship. Certain estates produce limited amounts of green and oolong.
Read next: India’s Other Teas