Darjeeling is high up in the foothills of the Himalayas in the north east of India. The tea bushes grow on steep slopes at altitudes ranging from 3000 to 7000 feet (914 to 2133 metres) and the misty cool conditions are well suited to the Chinese varietal of the plant (Camellia sinensis sinensis) which was planted here in the 1850s. The ‘First Flush’ teas that are harvested in late March and early April are the finest and the most expensive and are famous for their very light delicate character with hints of fresh mown grass and green grapes. The ‘Second Flush’ teas, picked in May and June, are a little more developed in flavour and have slightly stronger fruity, sometimes honeyed notes. The Autumnal teas, gathered when the temperatures begin to cool after the hot wet summer are more mature and rounded in character but still suggest ripe muscatel grapes and sun-warmed wood. Although the majority of Darjeeling teas are black, some gardens now also make white, green and oolong teas.
Assam is the second largest tea growing region in the world after China and the bushes grow on vast plains that stretch out on both sides of the River Brahmaputra. Tea was first planted here in the 1830s and the varietal that thrives in the hot steamy conditions is the Camellia sinensis assamica, the big leaf variety, which loves the low-lying conditions, the very high temperatures and the intense humidity. Most factories are equipped to manufacture both classic orthodox teas and small-leafed CTC (Cut Tear, Curl) teas for teabag blends. The best of the region’s teas, the ‘Second Flush’, are harvested in the early summer and have a delicious sweet, smooth, malty character that is perfect first thing in the morning, at breakfast, and with strong savoury foods. Assam teas are an important traditional ingredient in English Breakfast teas but also drink extremely well on their own.
Sri Lanka was originally a cinnamon-growing region until coffee took over and then, when the coffee crop failed in the 1860s and 70s due to an attack of a coffee rust fungus, some of the planters tried growing tea and found that it loved the conditions on the island. Today, tea grows at three different altitudes – below 2000 feet (600 metres), between 2000 and 4000 feet (600 to 1219 metres), and above 4000 feet (1219 metres). The low grown teas are coppery in colour and powerful, juicy and sometimes almost peaty in flavor; the mid grown teas are balanced and bright, and the high grown teas vary according to the different monsoon seasons and range from golden and elegant to intensely powerful, sometimes with hints of wintergreen. Almost all Ceylon teas are made using the time-honoured orthodox method of manufacture and most producers make mainly black teas.
All of China’s southern provinces grow mainly green tea. The finest teas are grown on the slopes of high mountains where the cool air means that the tea bushes grow more slowly and so concentrate the most subtle, sweet and refined flavours in the tiny buds that form as the new shoots develop. Many regions or villages have their own particular way of processing the freshly harvested leaf and so different areas have become famous for their particular style of tea – for example, West Lake is famous for Long Jing (Dragon Well); Taiping Village only makes Taiping Huo Kui (Taiping Monkey King); and Dong Ting Mountain is recognized around the world for its Bai Luo Chun (Green Snail Spring). Many Chinese families still make green tea by hand in their own kitchens, using just a wok and bamboo baskets, but today more and more factories are being constructed and fitted with modern machinery and equipment to allow the faster production of greater quantities of tea to meet a growing demand around the world.
China’s famous white teas, Yin Zhen (Silver Needles) and Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) originally come from Fujian province where the fat silvery buds of the Da Bai (Big White) varietal of the plant are gathered and dried first in sunlight and then indoors to give liquors that are elegant, delicate and sweet and often have hints of melon and pear in the aroma and taste. Today white teas are also made in Yunnan and Zhejiang provinces.
South Africa (Rooibos)
Although South Africa used to grow large quantities of tea, today very little is produced and only a small region in KwaZulu-Natal, on the country’s east coast, manufactures black tea. But South Africa is very famous for its Rooibos, a member of the broom family which grows happily in the Cederberg Mountains. Afrikaans for Red Bush, its botanical name is Aspalathus linearis and although others have tried to grow it outside South Africa, it seems to only like the harsh, arid conditions in this rugged region 250 kilometres north of Cape Town. Originally brewed by local tribes people as a refreshing and soothing hot beverage, the caffeine-free infusion was introduced to Europe and America in the 1930s and has become a very popular alternative to tea.