Visiting The Makaibari Tea Estate, Darjeeling
The Makaibari Tea Estate and Factory is located roughly 2 miles outside of Kurseong in the foothills of the Himalayas in West Bengal. The estate has been run by the Banerjee family since 1859 and was set up by the great grandfather of the current owner, Rajah Banerjee. It was the first tea factory ever built, and all the tea is still dried, fermented and packed in that same building. It was here that we decided to spend a couple of days with the families of the Makaibari tea pickers, and get a feel for life at 5,000 feet.
We arrived via a combination of cockroach infested train (more on this soon), rickshaw, and share jeep with 16 people instead of the generally accepted 7. By the time we arrived, we were a touch tired and not in the greatest of moods!
We were ushered into an office, and welcomed with a cracking cuppa, after-which moods were slightly improved.
We were then introduced to our family, the lovely Dilip and his wife and two children, who were to be our hosts for the next 2 nights. Dilip is actually Mr. Banerjee's personal chef, and we were promised that he was the best chef in the village, an accolade he seemed very pleased to hear and which he accepted with a grin and a head wobble.
We were loosely informed of our itinerary for the next day - report at 7am for a tour of the factory and the estate, and then a tea tasting with the legend that is Mr. Rajah Banerjee himself in the afternoon.
Bleary eyed and unwashed (there are no showers, but buckets of hot water are provided), we reported for duty at the appropriate time the next morning to tour the factory. Unfortunately, as we were quite early in the season, the factory was not at full capacity, and the information was slightly scarce. Luckily, our tour of the Sri Lankan factory 6 weeks earlier allowed us to inform the rest of our group what was happening at various different stages.
After breakfast, we went for a bit of a hike around the estate bordering the villages, no picking was occurring, but we still enjoyed the amazing views over the plain that leads down to Kolkata, and the Bay of Bengal.
We then retired to our adopted home for a delicious lunch of chicken, potato and bean curry and rice, before having yet another pot of tea and heading to the factory again for tea tasting.
The tea tasting was held by the hilarious, knowledgable, and eccentric owner, Rajah Banerjee. His knowledge of tea is incredible, as well as politics and economics. His passion for organic and sustainable growth is compelling. All throughout the tasting he tried to share various snippets of his struggle to convert the rest of the Darjeeling tea growers to organic methods. It has taken 24 years, but now 70% of all the tea coming out of Darjeeling is organically grown.
"Healthy soil is a healthy mankind" was his response when asked for a quote on sustainability.
We tasted 6 different teas, the best that the Makaibari Estate produces;
- First flush The tea bushes come alive from March to April for around 4 weeks, before sleeping again. The First Flush is picked exclusively at this time. The leaves have a fruity smell, similar to peach blossom and a green appearance despite it being a black tea
-Muscatel Smokier smell and flavour than the First Flush. Looks more like a traditional darker black tea. Can be picked throughout the season.
-"Darjoolong" Semi fermented black tea. This tea come about because Rajah could not dry as much black tea during the monsoon as the humidity was so high. Instead, this semi-fermented tea was created. It can be pan-fried as well to help the drying/fermenting process. This was my particular favourite.
-Silver Green Green tea, smells more like normal tea rather than a traditional green tea due to where it is grown.
-White tea Still a bud and two leaves. Has a white look. Earthy and fruity
-Silver tips imperial The most expensive tea ever sold, this is the king of teas. Because only the best tips are used, there are only 3 or 4 picks a year vs 15 of others. It is completely handmade.
As part of the tasting, we were taught how to taste tea. It's similar to tasting wine - there's a lot of slurping and spitting.
After the tea tasting, we were allowed some "free time" which we spent drinking more tea, and then I was taken by Dilip to his uncle's house to meet his family. I was greeted in the smallest kitchen I've ever been in by a plate of steaming Momos and a glass of what I thought was local water. I was apprehensive to say the least as I didn't want to be rude, but I also didn't want to regret my decision later (you know what I mean). I took the plunge, and drank...it turned out to be a local moonshine. The slightly chemical tasting 5% Rice Wine was tough to drink at first, but it got easier after the first glass.
I took some back for our new BFFs and Lucy and paid the princely sum of 20 rupees for about 8 Momos and 20 rupees for half a litre of Rice Wine.
We enjoyed it so much that Gav and I ran out to get some more...and then the rain came crashing down. So we were stuck, without power, in the tiny kitchen, waiting for the rain to stop. It didn't, it just got heavier!
We eventually ran back through the torrential downpour, after a glass of Rice Wine to deliver 2 portions of Momos and Moonshine in the dark.
When we said goodbye the next day, there was still no power in the village, although it had stopped raining for long enough for tea picking to begin. So if you buy a First Flush from the Makaibari estate soon, chances are we picked some of the leaves that went into it.