Monday, January 30, 2012

Ethereal Tea Fields

Mist in the Darjeeling hills

"Ethereal" is the best word I could find to describe the experience of the tea fields at Glenburn Tea EstateThe day was damp but pleasant.  The low clouds flirted with the landscapes; there for one moment then gone, to return just as soon. 

Each of the ~60 fields here has its own character. Each field produces a unique cup of tea, based on its elevation, age, the plant varietal, when the tea is harvested, amount of sun and rain, nutrients in the soil, etc.  Even within one field there are micro climates.  All of these factors must be accounted for when making the tea in the factory.

Tea plants grow on steep slopes

Glenburn produces tea from four harvesting seasons:
  • First flush: March/April
  • Second flush:  May/June
  • Monsoon flush: Mid July - Mid October; this is what we were drinking
  • Autumnal - November
There is a rest period between each flush, to allow the plant to restore the starch content in the roots.

Tea stumps and roots from bushes that have been removed

Glenburn removes a small percentage of its tea plants each year.  These fields are left fallow for few years, planted with legumes to restore nitrogen.  To balance the monoculture of tea growing, other compatible plants (marigolds, citronella, etc.) and insects (lady bugs, preying mantis) are introduced to the fields.  Tea plants need slightly acidic soil, between 4.5 and 5.5 pH in this area. 

Baby tea plants, grown from the Glenburn nursery

Traditionally, tea plants were germinated from seed in a moist sand/soil mixture.  In fact, the infamous Robert Fortune perfected the use of the Wardian Case, like a terrarium, to smuggle tea plants out of China. Today, however, most tea plants are made from slips, or cuttings, like you might do with a philodendron at home.  The slips ensure an identical genetic match to the parent, whereas tea seeds may be a hybrid - and that could be good or bad!

Next up, a look at the tea factory and then a picnic lunch by the river.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Flowers of the Tea Fields

The flowers of the tea field

About 350 women pick the 60 tea fields (nearly 300 hectares) at Glenburn Tea EstateTheir children attend school on the plantation, and babes in arms are brought to the tea fields.  A nurse maid keeps watch, or the mothers take turns, while the others pick and sometimes sing.  Five generations of families have worked these fields. 

It's the women who do the picking, a long tradition and belief that the delicate hands of a woman are required to give the tea the most gentle treatment.  The tea pickers we met were a little camera shy, but they smiled a lot.  They were curious about us, too.
Preparing for work in the wet bushes

Darjeeling has five seasons:  spring, summer, autumn, winter and monsoon.  In mid September, we experienced the long-tailed end of the monsoon season.  It rained quite a bit, but the tea picking continued.  The monsoon flush was underway, and during this season the tea bush "grows like crazy" to quote estate manager Sanjay Sharma.  Darjeeling monsoon teas are known for their rich amber color and full-bodied yet smooth taste.  Once the monsoon picking is over, the tea bushes take a brief rest and then autumnal picking commences.

Such beautiful women

Picking tea in the rain, very common in the monsoon season

The tea bushes in Darjeeling are trained into tables, flat surfaces that make for efficient tea picking.  In China, by contrast, the bushes are rounder which maximizes surface area.  It takes more than 1,000 shoots to make a pound of tea.  Pickers are paid by weight, and on average can pick about 8.5 kilograms (~18.7 pounds) per work day.  During the monsoon season, the numbers may be much higher due to the enthusiastic growth of the bushes.  Salaries are government regulated. 
The sky is grey, the rain is heavy but her smile is bright

Though the setting is almost too beautiful to be true in the tea fields of Darjeeling, the picking is real-life hard work.  The tea fields are sloped, requiring balance and leg strength.  The baskets get heavy and the weather conditions can vary from cool and rainy to humid and warm.  Few of us in the US would have the stamina or skill to make it even one day with these women.  Each time I drink a cup, I send out my thanks to these women with the pretty smiles, deft hands and strong muscles.

Another flower in the tea field - camellia sinensis

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bed Tea at Glenburn

The view from my bed at Glenburn Tea Estate

I woke my first morning at Glenburn to a light tap at the door.  Bed tea had arrived!  A wonderful Glenburn Autumnal Darjeeling tea, a few delectable cookies, delicate china, and a view like none other.  Oh, it was heaven!
Bed tea!

Just a few nibbles to start the day (breakfast is coming soon)

The view out my window

The sun porch adjoining our room, a peaceful place to take in the morning

The long veranda

After leisurely taking my tea in bed, I rousted myself to meet my traveling companions for breakfast on the veranda.

Flowers grown on the estate

Meals at Glenburn are extended affairs.  I love that people take the time to have polite conversation and meaningful discussion without rushing to the next thing.  In addition to the delicious conversation, we breakfasted first on fresh fruit, oatmeal and granola.  Then we had scones with cream and two types of marmalade:  pomelo (my favorite, grown onsite) and orange.  Next came the savories, with made-to-request eggs, broiled tomatoes, and avocados (also grown onsite).  In addition to more Darjeeling tea, we drank fresh squeezed orange juice.

The bed tea and breakfasts at Glenburn are among my favorite (of many favorite) memories.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Gong Xi Fa Cai and Being Spoiled at Glenburn Tea Estate

Gong Xi Fa Cai - Happy Chinese New Year!  And though I'm currently focusing on Darjeeling, India, its tea history is closely connected to you know the story of Robert Fortune? Part botanist, part spy, full-fledged thief (for the East India Company), he is the man responsible for bringing Chinese tea plants to Darjeeling and that, my friends, has made all the difference.  For more information, I recommend the book For All the Tea in China.  (The book on tape version is good.)

Our accomodations in Darjeeling were provided by the Glenburn Tea Estate, founded in 1859.  (See the current edition of TEA, A Magazine, for a profile of Glenburn.)  The late 1850's saw the beginning of the British Raj period, when Britain ruled over India (stretching through 1947).  The architecture of the buildings reflected this British Colonial style. 

We arrived in the evening, prior to dinner.  My room friend and I were shown to the Rose Suite.  We giggled like school girls with our good fortune and the serendipity, as roses are especially significant to my friend.  Throughout China, we were by no means roughing it, yet we were often staying in remote locales where even the best accommodations had limited amenities.  What a contrast to be here in luxury.  There could have been no better place to close out this adventure.  
Vanity in the Rose Suite

The suite was spacious with a sun porch, vanity, writing desk, two sleeping areas, a large bath, and spectacular views that revealed themselves the next morning.

Fruit grown on the estate; other items grown onsite included avocados, oranges, pomellos and many herbs.

Poster bed, soft and fluffy, a welcome change from the hard mattresses in China.

The dining room, complete with candlelight, place cards, and flowers.  Each evening we dined on a different pattern of china. 

Dinners were several-course affairs, with appetizers and drinks in the sitting room, followed by a gourmet meal in the dining room.  We enjoyed sharing dinner with Husna-Tara Prakash, the visionary behind this quaint inn and member of the family that owns the plantation, Sanjay Sharma, the plantation manager, and his wife Neilu, Najma Ahmed, our onsite hostess, and the other guests. 

This scene inspired me to light candles more often at home.

Our suite was just off the dining room, in the Burra Bungalow, the original.  The facility was restored in 2002.   In 2008, the Prakash family added a second bungalow.  It is hard to fathom how the building materials were transported here, even with modern-day equipment.  I cannot begin to envision how it was done in the 1800s!

The classy bath, with claw-footed tub and walk-in slate shower.

After dinner, many of my traveling companions enjoyed a good soak in claw-footed tubs.  When I indulged, I soaked until the water turned cold!

Glenburn has its own line of bath products that include green tea extracts from tea picked on the plantation.

I resolved many things on this trip, but two things stand out for me related to Glenburn  1 - I want to come back here someday and 2 - I want to bring this kind of luxury into my everyday life.  It don't require spending money, just creativity and a bit of effort.  I can take a bath and add a scented oil.  I can add candles to the table at dinner and have a long conversation with the DH.  I can use the china and linens that I love, and so forth.  Glenburn has been an inspiration. 

But wait, there's more!  Next I will talk about Bed Tea and breakfast, and then we'll go into the tea fields, see the pickers, learn about the processing, have a picnic and more.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Getting to Darjeeling

 Gorgeous views on the way to Darjeeling

After our brief time in Delhi, we headed out the next morning to Siliguri (by plane).  A delegation from the Glenburn Tea Estate met us at the airport.  We felt like VIPs, being greeted with ice cold cloths and glasses of lemonade. 

Ganesha on the dashboard

We assembled in two 4x4s, necessary for the mountain roads we'd be traversing.  As we exited the airport, I spied my first Indian tea field.  It's adjacent to the airport.  Note:  You'll see raindrops in many of these photos.  We were in Darjeeling in mid September, the end of the monsoon season.

 Tea field next to Siliguri airport

Where's my lane?  Typical street scene

I snapped photos left and right, in between holding my breath as cars came at us head-on.  Much like an elaborate game of chicken, the smaller vehicle has to maneuver out of the way.  This task can involve much inching forward, back, and a little to the side of many cars until a only-big-enough hole is created to let someone through.  The mirrors on all of our 4x4s pulled in, for close quarters.  

Another street scene

Roadside Tea House

We passed colorful tea houses in small towns.  This one seems to specialize in Coke, but look very carefully and you'll see boxes labeled "TEA" in the background.  I bet I could buy some loose tea here and maybe get a cup of chai.

After a delicious lunch with local tea representatives, we headed onward for the adventurous ride up to Darjeeling.  These mountainous, curvy, narrow roads require one's full attention, and I was so grateful for Sujit, our competent and courteous driver.  On a good day, it takes about 3 hours.  It took us longer because the night, fog and heavy rain traveled with us. 

Monkeys along the road to Darjeeling
Photo by Dan Robertson, World Tea Tours

En route, we spied monkeys along the side of the road.  As exciting as this was, and as cute as they are, I learned that their normal habitat is deep in the forest.  They are lured out by people who feed them, and it's bad news for the monkeys.  Shoo, shoo little ones - back into the forest!

My first cup of Glenburn Tea

About two hours into the ride, we stopped at an overlook.  Though it was pitch black, my colleagues enjoyed stretching their legs and being revived with a cup of tea and amazing chocolate brownies.  My legs were too shaky to leave the car (motion sickness), but that did not prevent me from the exquisite pleasure of inhaling the aroma and taking my first sip of Glenburn tea.  What hospitality to offer us tea at a lovely natural area, and on gorgeous cobalt blue china!

We've arrived!  In khaki, Sanjay greets us.  He is the tea estate manager. 
We're being offered sweet iced tea.

It took Dramamine, a front seat, deep breathing, and a skilled driver, but I made it up the windy mountainside to Darjeeling without requiring an emergency stop. :-) All of this was nothing compared to the amazing views along the way and the prize at the end, the Glenburn Tea Estate.  Stay tuned - you'll want to see the Glenburn pictures!  If you read TEA, A Magazine, check out the current issue which features the Glenburn Estate.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

First Impressions of India

I took a break from blogging about the Asia Tea Tour over the holidays.  I have a lot more to say about China (including Tibet), but I'm going to be daring and go out of order.  I want to talk about India!

We flew from Tibet (which I will blog about, Yak butter tea and all) through Kathmandu to Delhi.  The flight itself was spectacular, flying alongside Mt. Everest!  (I've shown this before, but it's worth a second look.)

Mt. Everest
Photo by Dan Robertson, World Tea Tours

The moment I stepped foot in India, my senses were dazed.  We had just come from the high grasslands of Tibet with its wide vistas and fresh, cool air.  Here in Delhi the air was warm, close and smoggy, like breathing porridge.  Contrast that grey canvas with vivid color everywhere...magenta, coral, chartreuse, azure, scarlet, indigo and gold.  The aromas of hot asphalt and car exhaust mixed with the scent of marigold from the lei we received in welcome. 

Typical street scene in Delhi: Mom with tot, riding side-saddle on the back of a scooter.
I loved her colorful clothing.

We headed out for a highlights tour of important governmental buildings in Delhi.  As we zoomed along on the "wrong" side of the road, I was astounded by the traffic.  Lanes didn't seem to matter.  I read a bumper sticker, "Hurry, hurry spoils the curry."  A cacophony of honking cars accompanied our guide as my ears adjusted to his Indian lilt. His melodic English soothed me.

Delhi is a city of cities (New and Old), the second largest city in India (Mumbai is first).  Though the air is thick with smog, the city is trying hard to clean up.  Most taxis and buses use CNG for fuel, compressed natural gas.  The city targets 30% of its land to be preserved as green space.

Then we stopped at an important monument park, and into the throng.  Here, the sense of touch became alive as people brushed against me - hawkers persistently selling wares, others out for an evening.  We met only a few folks in China who either asked for money or tried to sell us things on the street.  Here, though, the selling is hard core. 

Is that really what I'm seeing?  That thought was with me in each direction I turned.

India Gate, national monument and tribute to fallen soldiers

After our sight seeing, we headed to a restaurant.  I found it funny that at 8 pm, we were the first people to arrive.  Others didn't trickle in for dinner until nearly 8:30.  In India, if you're on time, then you must have nothing important to do!

Dinner was pure delight!  The food in China was healthy, tasty and interesting, but Indian food - for me - was supremely indulgent. It is my favorite.  We enjoyed succulent spiced chicken, cheese with roasted tomatoes, fenugreek with peas, and garlic naan.  We drank mango lassi and masala chai.  A welcome feast to this complex country of many colors, textures, spices, challenges and potentials.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Three New "Tea" Shirts

"Blending with a Purpose"

"English Breakfast Tea"
Gift from a friend - thank you!

"Pot Head"
Don't worry - that's camellia sinensis depicted!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Some Local (and Regional) Tea News

I'm excited to share this info on local and regional tea happenings:
  1. Japanese Tea and Culture classes (in Portland) starting soon!  (See below)
  2. Stay on top of Portland tea events at this calendar.
  3. Saturday, Jan 28th - A Fresh Start - Creating a Daily Tea Ritual for WellnessJasmine Pearl Tea Merchants.
  4. The San Francisco International Tea Festival is Feb 25th.  I can't go this year, but maybe next!  Tickets go on sale next week.
Margie, of the Sweet Persimmon blog, is starting two new Japanese Tea classes in the next few weeks.

Introduction to Japanese Culture through the Tea Ceremony
Harmony, purity, respect and tranquility. These are the four principles of tea ceremony distilled from Japanese culture. In this ten week class, students will be introduced to Chado, the way of tea. The arts of Japan will be examined through the ritual preparation and drinking of matcha, Japanese ceremonial tea. Students will participate in at least six tea ceremonies, an incense ceremony, and kimono dressing. Japanese architecture, gardening, flower arranging and calligraphy will also be covered. Classes will take place in a Japanese tea room located 4 blocks south of PCC Rock Creek campus: 17761 NW Marylhurst Ct., Portland, OR 97229

Fee: $250, materials will be available for purchase at class.
Meets Saturdays for 10 weeks, starting January 21st, 1:30-3:00 pm at Issoan Tea Room.

Beginning Chanoyu
Learn the procedures for Ryakubon, tray style, the most simple of Japanese Tea Ceremonies. This procedure can be done almost anywhere with a minimum of utensils. Learn the correct handling of utensils and further your knowledge of Japanese culture. Learn how to make different kinds of tea sweets, proper etiquette for both host and guests at a tea ceremony. Introduction to Japanese Culture through the Tea Ceremony recommended but not required. Classes will take place at Ryokusuido Japanese Antiques Shop: 3826 NE Glisan St., Portland, OR 97232

Fee: $250, materials available for purchase at class
Meets Wednesdays for 10 weeks, starting February 15th, 7:00-8:30

Call Margie Yap, 503.645.7058 to register. Limited availability.  Email:

*Image from Microsoft Images

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Year of the Picnic

I've decided that 2012 is going to be the year of the picnic!  I had such a fun time with a few picnics last year, that I want to bring this way of re-creating into my life on a regular interval.  I got an awesome "Tea Time" picnic blanket from my mom for Christmas, and I can hardly wait to put it to use.

I hope to have at least one picnic each month, and share the details with you.  Here's my first picnic report...

Where was that promised sun?!  The sky was one big duvet of grey as I headed out on my bike.  The robins puffed their chests but did not chatter as I made my way past them.  Folks around here may have called it cold, with the slight wind and threat of a drizzle, but I couldn't.  Forty degrees is a fine temperature for a bike ride.  Within a few minutes of pedaling, I was unzipping my coat.  The colors popped against the grey palette.  I smiled wide at the countryside, having forgotten that I wanted sun.  I always smile with this feeling of freedom.

I was riding alone today, which meant I could go as slowly as I wanted, and so I did.  At the turning point of my ride, I hadn't gone far but I had braved a new route, and I was ready to pick up the pace.  Food will do that.  :-)  I was en route to a beautiful little picnic spot I spied on my way out.

My picnic spot

Today's picnic basket, a waterproof bike pannier

In my bike bag, I carried a thermos of vegetarian posole, a seeded whole wheat roll and aged goat cheese, and chocolate-covered hazelnuts.  Having worked up an appetite, I think my taste buds were heightened because this simple meal was extremely satisfying.

This picnic was particularly notable to me, because it was:
  • Thrown together (I spent very little time planning)
  • Not a "picnic weather" day, but out I went anyway
  • Via my bike, always a plus
  • The start of something grand
Do you dream of picnics this year?  What are your tips for making the most of them? 

Monday, January 09, 2012

Tea-themed Gifts

I thought I'd share a few of the tea-themed gifts I received over the holidays. 

Reversible necklace, made from a scrabble piece.  "Keep calm and drink tea."  That's a motto to live by!

Sunshiny pot holders (with matching tea towel not shown).  These make my kitchen glow!

Vintage labels teapot

 Jigsaw puzzle, which I began yesterday.  I'll show you the finished product (eventually!).

And this lovely tea scarf, which I am wearing to work today.

Thank you to my friends and family who are so thoughtful, generous and giving.  I am very grateful.