Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea by Jeff Koehler


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Darjeeling’s tea bushes stretch across a picturesque landscape steeped in religious, sacred and mythical history. Planted at high elevation in the heart of the Eastern Himalayas, in an area of northern India bound by Nepal to the west, Bhutan to the east and Sikkim to the north, the rows of brilliant green, waist-high shrubs that coat the steep slopes and valleys around this Victorian ‘hill town’ produce only a fraction of the world’s tea, and less tan one per cent of India’s total. Yet the tea from this limited crop, with its characteristic bright, amber- coloured brew and muscatel flavours – delicate and flowery, with hints of apricots and peaches – is generally considered the best in the world.

This is the story of how Darjeeling developed its prodigious tea industry under Imperial British rule. It is a fascinating portrait of the region from the days of the Raj to the ‘voodoo farmers’ of the present day, who achieve world-record prices for their fine teas, all set against the backdrop of the looming Himalayas and drenching monsoons.

It is a story rich in intrigue, full of adventurers and unlikely successes in culture and religion, ecology and terroir, and one that began with one of the most audacious acts of corporate smuggling in history.

It is also the tale of how the industry had spiralled into decline by the end of the twentieth century, and how this paradisiacal spot in the high Himalayas now seethes with union unrest and a violent struggle for independent statehood. It is on the front line against the devastating effects of climate change and decades of harmful farming practices, a war that is being fought using radical methods.


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