Open my wallet and you will find a shabby business card from my former life when jobs lasted more than a week. Alex Nazaruk, teapigs, tea guru. I’m still unsure why this keepsake has such sentimental value. Perhaps, as my first career after University, it captures the zeitgeist of young adulthood? Perhaps it is a reminder of all stories from being part of a small business that grew rapidly from minnows to market leaders (like the time we realised an order for the states required a 13 digit bar code forcing us to drive to our warehouse to hand sticker 100,000 packs in -2°C). Or maybe it reminded me of unfinished business. Because for all the experiences, lessons learned, and biscuit runs to Brentford Morrison’s (I still hold the record at 4:10 secs) there was one major problem that trivialized my title as tea guru: I had never visited a tea plantation.
So last year, when I set about planning my culinary adventure, I sought to rectify this by working on the Dragonwell tea plantation in Hangzhou China. Pretty quickly, though, I realised my timings were a miss and I ended up arriving to find snow covered tea bushes. Undeterred I set about making new plans, re-routing my trip via Darjeeling so that I would arrive during the ‘first flush’ season in which the spring rains produce the very finest and freshest tea leaves of the year.
My second attempt to work on a tea plantation started badly when my lift from the airport was no-where to be seen. My phone had died, my card had stopped working and I hadn’t a cent of cash to quench my thirst in the blistering heat. Hours passed and still my lift failed to arrive. I took a gamble and hiked my way from the airport in a bid to find somewhere with internet (anyone who has visited Bagdogra will know just how difficult this is). In a strange twist of fate, a local sporting an England cricket hat raced towards me on the dirt track. By the virtue of the fact I was a. English, b. knew who Kevin Pietersen was and c. had actually been watching the T20 world cup, he escorted me to his mates hut where I sat between two cows, using their computer to call the plantation. A replacement car was on its way. Believe it or not KP had saved the day!
As we ascended the mountains to the town of Darjeeling, the delay in my car’s arrival became immediately obvious as we picked up not one but two flat tyres from the ragged road. The first caused little trouble, a quick change on the mountain side as the sunset in the distance on some of the most breath-taking scenery I had encountered on my travels. The second however, required us to drive slowly till we stumbled across a road side garage where, unsurprisingly, we joined a long queue of others who suffered a familiar fate.
After a long 36 hour journey, from a Thai tropical island to 7000 ft into the Himalayas, I finally arrived at my hotel in a world that time forgot. The lack of sleep only served to heighten the illusion I was a colonial Englishman in the 1860s. An elderly Indian chap plonked out show tunes on the piano as I sat by the fire-place sipping cherry brandy, surrounded by oak panelling, teak furniture and Daniell lithographs. I lasted all of two minutes until I drifted fast asleep.
The following day began at the crack of dawn. Still weary from the trip I put on my headscarf, attached my basket and trudged down the mountainside to start my day’s work. I would be spending the day with one of teapigs suppliers Happy Valley, who are the oldest and highest plantation in town established in 1854. Altitude, antique trees and heritage translate into excellent quality tea, with some batches fetching over $100 a kilo at auction. Imagine the grand cru champagne of the tea world and you’re somewhere close.
I greeted the Happy Valley tea ladies who unlike me were in good spirits for such an ungodly hour. They explained it was important we picked early as even a few extra hours of sunlight can impact on the quality. My task was to pick only the youngest and most tender two leaves and a bud on the tea trees, some of which were so fresh they had yet to lose their tiny white hairs all along the leaf – a bushy sign of quality. I trailed the ladies as they sang their way up the mountainside, picking with just the one hand until I mastered the skill, and lobbing the fresh leaves over my head into the basket behind. I paused to close my eyes and draw in a deep breath. The early morning dew had accented the aromas of the fields and the air was filled with aromas of freshly mown grass only sweeter and more floral. I would not forget this moment in a hurry.
We darted across streams, through woodland, and up, down and along the mountain side all while the smiling ladies giggled away at arguably the first man, let alone foreigner, to spend a day working with them. After several hours picking I had built up some appetite and so I was thrilled to stop for a lunch of homemade pickles, chapatis and dhal. With great pride the plantation manager, Arun Sharma presented me with some homemade chili sauce – one the finest I had ever tasted.
The afternoon continued by ascending over 1000ft while picking, something that proved exceptionally challenging at high altitude when the heat of the day broke through the clouds. At the end of tiring day despite my best efforts I returned to the factory having only picked 500g – a far cry from the 3kg of my mentoring tea ladies. I helped the men of the factory bring the tea leaves inside, where we scattered them in troughs to wither over night.
Exhausted doesn’t begin to cover it, but in spite of this, the satisfaction of finally living out an experience I used to dream about so often from my desk at teapigs had me beaming with delight. Tomorrow I would take my 500g of tea and manufacture it into some very special hand produced first flush tea. But for now, time for some rest. Someone put the kettle on.