As a youngster I hated tea. I associated it with being sick. Because any time I had a cold, or an upset stomach, my mother would make me drink tea. Even having ‘high tea’ in London didn’t turn me into a fan. Loved the scones, the clotted cream, the jam, the cucumber sandwiches, the ‘ceremony’, the pomp, the circumstance, the pretty china, the silver, the Dorchester Hotel. But the tea, itself … not so much.
And then, suddenly, about six or so years ago, I developed a fondness for it. Totally out of the blue. Earl Grey, with a squeeze of lemon and a bit of honey. Ginger honey, preferably. So good. It’s gentle. Calming. It feels like a treat. It has the same effect on me as a lovely, warm bath. It leaves me satisfied, glowing, mellow, slightly drowsy, and feeling cosseted.
There’s a genuine sense of well-being in every cup.
In India I became positively addicted to ginger tea. Also masala tea; and even chai. Once you’ve had tea there, you’re never the same. Aside from the taste, which is exquisite, they turn the serving of tea into an event. They offer you tea when you’re checking into hotels and your rooms are not yet ready. They even bring it to you, when you’re shopping in stores. All of a sudden you look up, and there’s someone with a silver tray, filled with small cups. This happens everywhere, even in the tiniest, poorest, little shop. It is a wonderful, welcoming, ritual. A gesture. A thank you. A shared moment when suddenly, strangers become friends.
In one shop we were in, the shopkeeper went so far as to send his young son home, to ask his wife to make tea and bring it to the store. Which, of course she did. Which, of course, she was thrilled to do. I mean that. She was genuinely thrilled. The smile on her face when she arrived, was a sight to behold. Unbelievable. Like that would ever happen here.
In the South we also got to see tea plantations. Mile after mile after mile after mile of lush, green plants. As far as the eye could see.
Growing tea plants takes a long time — from four to twelve years for a plant to bear seed, and about three years before a new plant is ready for harvesting. The best plants are cultivated at elevations of up to 1,500 m (4,900 feet) above sea level, because they grow more slowly, which results in a better flavour. Not a business for the impatient.
What amazed me the most, though, was the sight of all the women, in their saris, picking the tea plants. In India, women do not get a free ride, let me tell you. There they are, so dainty, so petite, in their beautiful, silk saris, doing heavy manual labour: Driving enormous four-wheelers, digging ditches, building roads, spending hours and hours in the hot, blazing sun, picking plants, stuffing them into heavy sacks they carry on their backs.
Another surprise: I was always under the impression that China exported the most tea. But that’s not true. India leads the world in production. And here’s an interesting little factoid you may also not have known: The best quality tea is not exported. So despite what our ads might say, in India they wouldn’t drink what we drink. It’s not good enough. And now that I’ve tasted the tea over there, I know it to be true. There is a dramatic difference in taste.
We also went to a factory, to see how the tea is processed. First the leaves are spread out on shelves, to dry. Next they’re put through rolling machines, to press out the juice. Then they go to a special fermenting room and, finally, they’re put in an oven, for drying. Between the time it takes for the plants to get to the stage where they can be picked, and then the actual processing, it’s a wonder that a cup of tea doesn’t cost a lot more money, than it does.
But I still haven’t had my fill. So my next trip to India (whenever that is), will also include a tea experience.
First, I must go to Darjeeling, known the world over for the quality of its black teas. I have a very romantic notion of Darjeeling, and its history. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has one of the few steam locomotives still in service in India. As for the tea there, it is light-coloured when brewed, with a very floral aroma. Different from what I had in the South.
Tea aside, I’d also like to visit Shimla, in the state of Himachal Pradesh, in the north-western ranges of the Himalayas. It’s well-known as a hub for India’s tourism sector; and it also ranks among the top 10 preferred entrepreneurial locations in the country. On this same trip, I’d also go to Rishikesh, one of the most beautiful, most spiritual places on earth. Known as The Gateway to the Himalayas, the sacred river, Ganges, leaves the Shivalik mountains in the Himalayas, flows through Rishikesh and out into the plains of Northern India. It’s also been nicknamed the world capital of Yoga.
Sounds heavenly to me. And here I am. Once ambivalent (at best), it now appears that I can’t get enough of tea. So much so, I’m prepared to travel half way around the world for more. There seems to be no question about it.
Tea is definitely in my future. And I know this, without even having to read the leaves left in the bottom of my cup.