Tea Tea Tea. The British normally love it but I’m indifferent, well I was until I cycled to Darjeeling in India. Tea is not just tea it seems.
I always thought it tasted like dishwater, a brown indistinct flavoured beverage, but it doesn’t always. We’re just living under an illusion that PG tips or Tetley actually tastes like good tea. Therefore I thought I would share my journey of Tea’scovery.
My first stop on the tea road was cycling across Turkey. Turkey, like myself isn’t big on alcohol consumption. But unlike me they’re not content with just water, weak beer or juice. This means great quantities of tea are consumed and this becomes more than a drink and more of a culture and way of life. Teas rooms are where men go to watch the world pass by or play chess and back-gammon in the sun. Here they they wouldn’t touch the milk infused tea bag junk we like but a delicately flavoured orange coloured blend grown on the temperate Black sea coast of north west Turkey. It’s so good that apparently most of the Turkish Kebab shop owners in the UK usually get it sent over direct as they miss it so much.
Turkish ‘Chai’ as it is pronounced is served ‘black’ in small thumb sized glasses and plenty of sugar! It has a delicate flowery flavour and is not bitter in taste, remarkably it comes from the same plant as British tea given the taste is quite different. Not only is it standard to have two cubes of sugar but a small sweet/large cake is usually accompanying well mine did anyway! We were drinking about 4 or 5 cups a day on average (so that’s 4/5 cakes too!), both from the infamous Turkish Tea rooms or invites from strangers we met. The habit of drinking tea grew on me a lot. Even in campsites the Turkish got they’re tea stoves out like this one:
The weird apple and other random spiced teas you see in Istanbul seem to not appear much outside the tourist districts it’s just normal tea.
Over the border in Georgia and Tea is still drunk but is less popular, over shadowed by strong home brewed brandy, Cha Cha that I tried to avoid from 9am in the morning onward. A similar blend of Tea is grown along the Georgian coast to that of Turkey but it’s less popular.
Tea drinking is a sociable event:
Uzbekistan and the other central Asian countries are big into tea, here it has a slightly bitterer, darker blend than Turkey but otherwise similar. The way it is taken varies but a preference of jam or sweet preserved berries instead of sugar is stirred in by the Uzbeks. Sometimes a selection of white fruit flavoured chewy sweets get handed out, not for eating but dissolving in the tea. I thought this would be a fantastically tasty idea but instead it’s just odd. I generally reserved the jam for bread and sweets for cycling. Freshly boiled Tea was a safe bet in the many homes I was invited to stay in across the region. A few houses used shared bowls that got passed around but usually I had a clean small glass or bowl. I didn’t rate the hygiene of much food I was offered and tried to avoid getting sick but to avoid insulting a host it’s safe to say I drank a lot of tea.
As a general rule I didn’t take many pictures in peoples houses but here was my dinner at a fancy homestay in Kazakhstan where I was well fed and tea’d after arriving late.
The whole tea drinking experience was quite the spread in Central Asia, after prayers it was a sociable event with a large selection of sweets in varying states of decay spread out in the homes. Huge colourful 10inch high crystals of sugar garnish the table, flavorless but a popular addition for some reasons. Alongside was noramlly a weird snack – like long strands of sweet bread curled up into circles and piled up high, most I tried was so stale I never knew if it was for decoration and I was breaking etiquette. Adding milk to the tea would have thoroughly confused anyone out here. But as a side point fermented milk based drinks would fill another blog along with the bacteria living in them!
Onwards to the real home of tea – India.
After central Asia we tried Tibetan butter tea in the mountains of Nepal not really a tea but the sweet version was pretty tolerable! Sometimes black tea is used as the base mixed with Yak butter, sometimes cheese. Others used ground Champa grain to make it thick. It varies a lot, but it consistently tastes ‘unusual’ to the western palate.
We finally hit India and Darjeeling which was a wonderfully British experience.
Darjeeling is tea at its’s very finest. The temperate climate and long legacy of developing tea means the area is home to some of the best tea leaves in the world. In fact it has the most expensive tea in the world too and we visited the plantation where it is grown – Makaibari. At $1,800 a kg, for something that isn’t an investment that ages well like wine or whiskey, it’s quite a ridiculous sum to pay. I kid you not it was only picked under a summer solstice full moon when the silver new tips can be most easily spotted and taste better, who buys this stuff? We just missed a full moon picking by two days, so I picked some under sunlight and it seemed OK. To get to the tea estates we travelled on the famous toy train up into the mountains:
We stayed on the 155 year old Makaibari organic tea estate in a very accommodating tea workers house, and we were well fed with great seasonal local produce. We had a tour of the estate, trying to avoid while at the same time trying to spot one of the wild tigers that roam in the woods here.
In the factory the tea is laid out to dry before being crushed/rolled carefully by a huge rotating machine made in Glasgow 150 years ago and it’s still in use. The tea is then left to dry/oxidate into black tea before some ladies hand picked out any stalks. It then got dried out in a giant furnace.
We were honestly told that the stalks and sweepings from the floor were sold as teabags, enjoy those Lidl bargains!
The tasting session we had was actually really interesting with different ‘flushes from spring, summer or autumn compared against each other, then trying the white, green and black teas. Green tea is crushed but not left to oxidise, white tea is neither crushed nor oxidised, if I remember correctly black tea is crushed and oxidised. All have distinctly different tastes even to a ignorant tea hater like me.
It all comes from the same plant but the processing varies the style and flavour so much and much is down to the nose of the guy in charge, both at the rolling/crushing stage to the oxidising stage. Little did I know that lurking in that small tea dealer’s shop lurks a very pleasant drink, a drink that is nothing like the bitter flavourless supermarket tea bags we hate so much that we dilute it with lots of milk. We purchased some of our favourite teas but wished we could have taken a bit more!
There you have my thoughts on tea, next week I can discuss the different shapes of white bread around the world if you like and then how long it takes for paint to dry at different latitudes!
Playing the waiting game takes three men in Darjeeling: