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Reading the Tea Leaves 🍃 Darjeeling - Intro + Chapters 1-3

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

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Two Leaves and a Bud

The intro for Darjeeling begins with a vignette that takes place in 2003 at the Kolkata auction (Kolkata is the capital of India’s West Bengal province). The author recounts the ambiance of the auction house and the historic moment when a small lot of Darjeeling tea sold for $390.70 per kilo - “that’s the equivalent of two tea-stuffed suitcases going for more than $10,000 each wholesale.”

The intro establishes the value and quality of Darjeeling teas (“single-estate teas, unblended and unflavored”). It also provides background on how Darjeeling tea is processed in comparison to most of India’s tea, “Darjeeling tea is orthodox black tea. The leaves are withered, rolled, fermented, and fired in the traditional method.”

Although Darjeeling only has 87 tea estates, the region produces some of India’s finest teas. Yet after the 21st century counterfeits and a myriad of other challenges (socioeconomic, labor shortages, etc.) have tarnished the reputation and quality of the tea. This novel is a historical account of the rise and fall of Darjeeling tea.

First Flush

This vignette describes the quality and season of first flush Darjeeling tea. First flush refers to tea picked between late February to mid-April. “First flush teas are the most delicate Darjeelings of all,” they are also the most sought after. It is truly “Springtime in a teacup.”

First Flush - Into the Hills

This chapter describes the Darjeeling region and mentions that some of the most celebrated tea estates include “Makaibari, Castleton, and Ambootia”. More importantly, the region is known for its steep hillsides and unique fauna.

A good summary quote for this chapter - “The tea’s essence, uniqueness, and greatness begins in this terroir--naturally, but also spiritually.” Darjeeling is located next to the Himalayas and many locals believe “the breath of God blows cool air down over the Darjeeling hills” nourishing the terroir and in turn the tea.

Although tea flourishes in this region now, it was not initially considered suitable for growing tea by the British, “Even the venerable and much-respected Joseph Hooker opined that Darjeeling was too high with too little sun and too much moisture to grow tea.”

First Flush - Journey from the East

This chapter recounts the relationship between tea and buddhism - beginning with the legend that tea was discovered by the Bodhidharma (a monk who founded the Zen school of Buddhism). There are several versions of this account with the most shocking being that while meditating Bodhidharma fell asleep, and upon waking was so angry with himself he cut off his own eyelids and threw them to the ground. “In the spot where they landed, tea bushes grew.”

This chapter also references several important works of tea including The Classic of Tea by Lu Yu (who “metamorphosed into the god of tea”), Kissa Yojoki translated to “drinking tea for health” by Myoan Eisai, The Way of Zen by Alan Watts who claimed “Buddhism is most certainly tea,” and The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura who described green tea as “froth of the liquid jade.”

It also tells the history of how tea became a national addiction for the British by the mid-eighteenth century. Tea arrived in Europe in 1580 with a Portuguese trader and was considered healthy because of its bitterness (it was left to brew in wooden kegs like wine). It then became fashionable in royal courts and slowly gained popularity among the population as it became a more affordable commodity.

British added milk to the beverage and eventually sugar. They created their own cultural tea traditions and rituals, but it never took on the religious significance as it did in China and Japan.

First Flush - The Company

The final chapter in this reading is an in-depth historical account of the infamous East India Company. Initially created to bring back spices, the Company gained power and influence when it eventually turned to importing tea. By 1817 Englad brought in 36,234,380 pounds of tea - and the Company had the exclusive monopoly on importing it to Britain.

Although the Company began in trade they eventually built their military and political power - having a private army of 154,000 by 1805 and taking on the role of “war lords.” The Company “established global cities such as Calcutta and Bombay as well as Singapore and Hong Kong and shaped and governed much of the Indian continent.” Much of these ventures were fueled by the nation's dependency on tea and despite “the taxes and high transport costs, tea was the Company’s most important commodity.”

At the time, tea came exclusively out of China and this created a trade imbalance that drained the British silver reserves. In response, British started pushing Opium to the chinese people, smuggling the drug in and creating a national dependency on the drug for the chinese people. “As tea and opium could not be bartered directly, opium was sold for silver, which in turn paid for tea.” This despicable trade was actively sanctioned by the British government and executed by the Company. In 1830 there were “upward of 12 million opium smokers in China, perhaps 2 million of them addicts.”

The Chinese made attempts to resist the importation of Opium into the country by blocking the port in Canton and dissolving the drug in the sea. In response, Britain began the First Opium War and the Second Opium War eventually legalizing opium in China. Not surprisingly the “first non-Company consignment of tea shipped out of China was by Jardine, Matheson & Co., the largest and most famous of the opium merchants.” As the Company began to lose their Chinese monopoly on tea they turned to India and the prospect of growing and controlling the production of tea there.

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