Chai country – the Indian answer to the Champagne region of France

By Roswitha Joshi


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Kurseong : Recently there were reports that the tea industry in West Bengal lies in a shambles. Neglect and the misuse of the name 'Darjeeling Tea' for inferior blends had done it in. At that time I had no inkling that soon I would be witness to valiant revival attempts in the land of tea, and that in a holistic way in truly enchanting surroundings.

I wanted a break and had opted for Cochrane Place at Kurseong, a neat little town nestling at an altitude of almost 1,500 metre amongst the orchid-filled forests and terraced tea plantations of West Bengal. The one-and-a-half hour drive from Bagdogra airport seemed to lead right into the sky. Clouds floated around Cochrane Place, which was, before its conversion into a boutique hotel, the home of a former British resident. It has retained some eccentric features which made me gape and giggle.

But, though the place is steeped in the past, its owners, the Arora family, are keen to expand their operation. Under the brand name 'Chai Country' they want to uplift the entire region and have, to this end, tied up with like-minded entrepreneurs who have made it their mission to buy up and put into shape run-down tea plantations and factories.

A joint project is the conversion into a museum of the Happy Valley Tea Factory, the oldest in Darjeeling and non-operational for the last three years. The restoration work is already in full swing.

The adjacent manager's bungalow which right now boasts, amongst the old and dusty furniture, an assortment of stuffed animals either whole or in pieces as well as a statue of Rabindranath Tagore and a sexy blonde on the same shelf, will be converted into a tourist bungalow.

Its special charm will not only lie in its location right amid the tea bushes but a café on top to savour the brews from what the bushes provide.

The grand opening of all three attractions is planned for the end of the year.

In stark contrast to the tea-museum rising out of the compost of the past is Ambootia, the organic bio-dynamic tea estate, which produces one of the finest teas of the area and allows visitors only to enter their hallowed halls in coats, slippers and caps provided by them.

They export their produce all over the world and proudly display a certificate stating: "Harrods of Knightsbridge has exclusively selected the most exquisite Ambootia teas from the world famous Darjeeling district."

The superlative White Tea is made from only the most select tender buds plucked with the first rays of the sun. These silver tips are then carefully processed to produce a mystical tea that is bright, mellow and aromatic.

The exotic Hand Rolled Tea is made from the most delicate leaves and buds, gently hand rolled in order to recreate nature itself in the cup. A record number of highly skilled workers have produced this mild yet enlivening tea.

For tea tasting it was, however, back to Cochrane Place, which boasts not only of a tea bar in one of their restaurants, but also a huge aluminium spout which points outside the wall right at a terrace-café whose menu card dedicates two full pages to tea varieties ranging from Queen of the Hills and Irish Chai to Orange Blossom.

Modern age gurus preach that genuine efforts make the entire universe conspire to help you. Thus, amongst the guests was the German consul general from Kolkata who enthusiastically photographed the Happy Valley Tea Factory – in the process of being converted into a museum – in its run-down state for a 'before and after' pictorial documentation.

There was a couple from New Delhi who jumped at the opportunity to create an electronic audio-guide about the Kurseong-Darjeeling area. There was a German archaeologist-turned-stage designer who dreamed about running a café. And there was yours truly.

(Roswitha Joshi is a German writer based in India. She can be reached at [email protected])