Diary of a Tea Hunter
How do the finest quality teas make their way from remote places all over the world to the pantries of shops like the Tea Smith? It takes great connections, tenacity, a love for exploration and good timing. The grueling journey isn’t for the faint of heart.
Marco Polo may have never made it to China, but there are plenty of modern day adventurers who have left the comfort of their homes and gone off in search of treasure in the form of tea. Kevin Gascoyne is one such explorer, who hails from Montreal, Canada. Every year during spring, he travels to tea gardens in the Himalayas to find the finest first-flush Darjeelings.
Although present day tea collectors have a leg up on their predecessors from centuries ago (they have the advantage of moving around by plane, for one), that doesn’t mean the way there is easy or leisurely. To reach the best regions of first-flush Darjeelings, Gascoyne takes up to nine different flights that transport him to the Darjeeling and Kangra valleys, and then later on to Nepal.
His first stop is at Samir Changoiwala’s tea garden in Kolkata, India. Changoiwala isn’t just a cultivator and vendor, but also an old friend. It’s these kind of relationships that help mix business with pleasure, and make haggling a friendlier affair. It takes someone with a particularly strong knowledge of tea flavors, standards and prices to get an excellent deal. Without knowledge of whatdamaged tea leaves look and taste like, it can be easy to end up of the wrong side of a bad deal.
Not all teas are created equal, that much is certain. It takes a great deal of perseverance tosift through subpar offerings. It also takes a degree of diplomacy. This year’s not-so-great harvest could be top-shelf next year, so it’s important to maintain good relationships with farmers. With low levels of rainfall in crucial regions, many tea harvesters have had to make do as well as they can. On a second trip, weaving through tea gardens nestled on the steep base of the Himalayan mountains, Gayscone moves on from one dead-end tasting, politely holding on to a few samples that he’ll “try again later.”
For Gayscone, a two-week trip through these tea regions is enough to round out a diverse and delicious Tea Catalogue. One of the stops on his trip includes Aloobari Garden, known for having the oldest plants in the Darjeeling region. Back in Kolkata, he participates in a 150-cup tasting, a terrific way to cap off a productive trip in search of tea.
Next time you pick up a freshly-brewed cup of loose leaf Tea at the Tea Smith, think about the long journey each leaf has gone through to make it all the way to your cup. It may just make the taste that much better! You can read more about Gayscone’s tea trek at the Montreal Gazette.