Thursday, May 5, 2011

Brew from the Blue Mountains

I visited Tamil Nadu and Kerala on work as a younger person, but not with the time and leisure to explore the tea of the region.  When I did pick up store bought tea that claimed to come from the south of India, it was almost always a disappointment on all counts other than cuppage.  So it was with some pleasure (and lot of goading by a friend) that I discovered pure leaf teas from the blue mountain thanks to a friend who was more excited about it than I was.

Of greater interest to me till this point was the amazing natural beauty of this region and the richness of its indigenous cultures.  Most of the tea growers and pickers are from the indigenous Badaga people (though there is ample evidence that they actually were migrants from neighboring Karnataka), with their white mundu and dhoti.  The word Nilgiri (Blue Mountain) also turned up in the context of Nilgiri Oil, a brand name that has now acquired a broader genericity, given to Eucalyptus oil from this region.  This naming also embodies the destruction of the Nilgiri Biosphere since neither tea nor eucalyptus (nor wattle for that matter, which is also majorly cultivated in the region) are native to this region.  As a result, much of the natural fauna and flora have slowly been edged toward endangerment, much like the grassland fauna of Andhra Pradesh.  The Asian elephant, the gaur or Indian bison, and many other birds, as well as plants of this biosphere are today listed as near extinction.  You can google the Nilgiri Biosphere to know more about this.

Back to uplifting tea.  Truth is, much of the tea produced and sold by this region is the stronger, higher-cuppage CTC tea.  Nilgiri tea has also been dogged by reports of poor manufacturing practices and scrutiny by the Tea Board of India.  Traditionally, Nilgiri tea was bought up in large part by the erstwhile USSR, who in true communist spirit, did not discriminate between good and bad.  This legacy, along with the fact that bulk of the produce from here is CTC, has dogged the better full leaf teas of the region.

Some of the better black teas come from the houses of Chamraj and Havukal, and Pascoe's has a good full leaf green tea.  Sadly, almost all of the good tea from here gets picked up in divided lots by international buyers.  As a matter of fact, it was a friend from the European Tea Board who first tipped me off to the fact that good full leaves were also available in the south.

Another exciting feature of this region, apart from being an UNESCO biosphere, is the annual cycling event, known as Tour of Nilgiris.  Held in December, this weeklong event is slowly picking up a serious fan following.

For tea lovers, the Nilgiris are a multifaceted experience, from the scenic beauty to the heritage and indigenous culture.  Definitely worth a dekko.  For anyone in search of a local base (we are at Hyderabad, a short hop away from Kochi), please be our guest.

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