I live in Darjeeling and I love Darjeeling, even without associating it with tea. I am also in search of Darjeeling outside of Darjeeling. That search has led me to wander in Yunnan, Anhui, Fujian, Zhijiang, Jiangxi, and Sichuan. The closest I have come to finding Darjeeling outside of Darjeeling is Wuyishan, where Mr. Jiang took me to his tea garden located in a restricted natural reserve where smoky Lapsang Souchong is made. The smell has never wafted away from my nostrils.
For 37 years now – since 1974 when I first saw a tea bush in Sholayar and later woke up to it in Seeyok in 1985 – I have been searching for Darjeeling’s origins. The moist moss and organic matter in the dripping jungles of Wuyishan and the tingling bells of cha ma gu dao call me. Robert Fortune walks in front of me and I follow.
The flavor of the Darjeeling teas comes from the trapped cold air in Darjeeling’s valleys and the hot winds coming from the Gangetic plains. After being reflected from Kanchenjunga, the hot winds cool down and settle in the three fingers of the Singalila range – the Mirik, Nagri, and Kurseong ridges, which form a complete circle around Namsoo – the point at which the Rungbong and Fazikhola Rivers become the Balason River, which flows north to south toward Siliguri and empties into the Mahananda River, and ultimately to the Ganges. Then there is the Rungeet River, which flows west to east to merge with the Teesta River, which also empties into the Ganges. Together these represent the drainage system of Darjeeling and Sikkim. This cold air and water give a flavor to Darjeeling that is distinctive of the different ridges and valleys. Eighty-seven tea estates spread all over Darjeeling have their own unique fingerprints.
Its geographic advantage makes Darjeeling teas unique in their quality and this is the reason they cannot be duplicated anywhere else in the world – the 100 or so flavor compounds found in Darjeeling teas cannot be found elsewhere. Kanchenjunga only exist in one place – not even in Nepal or Sikkim – but to some extent, this is a disadvantage too. The Tea Board fights to keep the fakes out through certification trade mark (CTM) and geographical indications (GI). Sometimes with as little as 7.5 million kilos in annual production, 45 million kilos have been sold because of fakes. God help us.
The story of tea in Darjeeling is repeated umpteen times in different historical records, but what is of interest is that it originated in China. My endeavor is to find its roots there. Many books give many theories, but what I have found most sound is that Darjeeling’s roots trace back to Wuyishan. Recently, we had a tea-testing session there and reconfirmed those roots. DNA mapping will start soon by the Tea Board and then the happy ending to the Chinese TV film on the origins of Darjeeling will be established beyond a doubt.
Long live Darjeeling …