Mark Twain wrote that “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. Our most valuable and most artistic materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only!”. I have taken you all on my journey through India and have tried to share with you the passions and the people that welcomed me to their homes for two weeks. But in the end they are only words on a screen. Because the true value of what I experienced in India is in my heart.
I am slightly at a loss for words in wrapping up this trip for you all. And for those of you that know teagirl…that’s saying a lot! So let me just say thank you. Thank you to every single planter, estate manager, superintendent for the dedication and commitment you made me feel. Thank you to every smiling tea picker that patiently showed me how to properly pluck a leaf. Thank you to every factory that allowed me to experience every step of what it takes to produce this leaf – tea.
Thank you to every small producer that is keeping the traditions alive. Thank you to estates that have been operating through generations of commitment out of a duty to their past and a duty to the future.
I saw with my eyes and felt in my bones the sincerity and pride with which I was greeted everywhere I went. I felt with my hands and tasted with my mouth, the dignity in each leaf picked and processed to make its way into my cup of tea. The Chinese and Japanese speak of Teaism and Daosim and that ‘tea is a cup of humanity’. I now understand fully that short sentence. Because humanity is what was shouting as the message for me to hear, even though it is a gentle whisper that is simply a part of the fabric of existence in this vast and beautiful country.
Thank you beautiful India. In the words of Raj, our patient driver…’this is India…and in India…anything is possible’. And he was right, anything was possible…including what teagirl expected the least…India settling in a piece of my heart.
It is difficult, if not impossible to take a journey through the Indian world of tea without stumbling upon the largest producer of tea in the world…McLeod Russel. When I say the largest producer, I mean 100 million kg per year, across India, Africa and Asia, employing over 90,000 people. Large indeed. I visited two of their estates while in Assam, Hunwal and Keyhung. Both of these estates produce some of my favourite breakfast teas – full bodied, malty Assam.
Teagirl grew up on black tea – black tea with milk and sugar. And I guarantee you that if I’m feeling down and in need of a hug, short of an arm around me, I will opt for a strong cup of Assam with some milk and honey. It makes me feel safe and happy. So being in these two estates and cupping their wonderful teas gave me a sense of home.
What I want to talk about however are the types of teas that are produced in these factories. And by that, I mean CTC as well as Orthodox production. These are two different production types used for tea – CTC being a cut and size that is focused for the ‘conventional’ industry, teabags. The reason I want to focus on this is because I did cup a lot of teas in Assam, at Hunwal and Keyhung included, which were CTC. Now some of you may be turning up your nose, but that is exactly why I think this is important to say. CTC comes in many different grades and qualities – as does Orthodox production. And I assure you that I have tasted fabulous in both and not so fabulous in both.
I have heard endlessly over the years, by consumers and colleagues alike, that what is in teabags is the dust off the floor, and I have tried tirelessly to explain that it is not. I have walked the floor of these factories and seen the same amount of care and dedication used in the fields in plucking right to the factory for production for both CTC as well as Orthodox leaves. Comparing the two and holding one up against the other, is like comparing an apple to an orange – unfair and unjust.
The reality is that 90% of the tea industry is made up of the ‘conventional’ teas. I have witnessed so many of my specialty colleagues look down on this sector and I can’t tell you how strongly I feel about the fact that it needs to stop. The ‘conventional’ industry has paved the way and is actually the one that has largely financed the health studies on which we have based a large portion of our business’. The ‘conventional’ industry produces quite simply a product that serves a very specific purpose, it is convenient and it builds stronger fuller flavours quicker.
I assure you however that it is most certainly NOT the dust off the floor. I have shared with you above the meticulous notes taken in the processing log book for the production plan on the day I visited Hunwal estate. Does this care and detail look like something that is the dirt off the floors?
I have chosen to focus my business on specialty, this does not however mean that I am better than or superior to any other portion of this industry. We have a lot to learn in the west about respecting the product…tea…regardless of its format.
Thank you McLeod Russel, for opening your doors to us and showing us the delightful flavours in both your Orthodox and CTC teas.
As you have all seen and heard, many estates were visited on my adventure in India. I’ve talked endlessly about the kindness and the hospitality. I’ve told you about specific people and estates to which I am truly grateful for how well they took care of us. Harishpur, who I told you about in my last post, went so far as actually opening up their home to us to stay at. As did Amgoorie and Borbam in Assam. It’s these last two estates and specifically the company they belong to that I want to share with you today.
Goodricke is a large company that calls itself ‘The Tea People’. They incorporated in India in 1977 and have since become the home to some of the finest names in tea estates in India. I was fortunate enough to visit five of their estates between Darjeeling and Assam.
In Darjeeling, I cherished the teas I tasted at Thurbo, Castleton and Margaret’s Hope. All estates that I have loved and coveted for as long as I have been drinking teas from Darjeeling. In Assam the hospitality was further extended when Amgoorie and Borbam actually opened the doors to their homes for us to stay the night. A dinner was hosted which included the most wonderful musicians as well as the welcoming dance by the beautiful tea pluckers. Yes, teagirl danced again, this time barefoot in the grass.
As if all this wasn’t enough, in between our travels from Darjeeling to Assam, Mr. Arun Singh, CEO of Goodricke, welcomed us with a beautiful dinner at the Goodricke house in Kolkata.
Why am I listing all this for you? Because it’s important for everyone to appreciate and understand the warmth and dedication that I experienced. And this extended from the small estates we visited right up to the ones owned by an enormous company such as Goodricke. These people LOVE this industry. And if you can’t see that when you’re there, you are truly blind. From the commitment they declare to their gardens, the shiny floors in the factories you could truly eat from, to some of the most beautifully crafted teas, the love is prevalent.
Thank you Goodricke, for setting a high bar, it was inspiring to see and experience.
I have to admit that in the form of leadership, women were few and far between on my journey in India. Women are of course an integral part of the tea industry, but the people running the factories and tea estates we visited, were all men. Until of course we got to Harishpur in Assam and met Suparna Bagchi. To say that Ms Bagchi operates Harishpur by herself would not be telling the whole truth. Her cousin, Sumit is an integral part of developing the business aspects. But if you ever doubt the fact that a business can have a beating heart and a glowing soul, then you must visit the tea estate in Assam.
Suparna Bagchi took over the estate when her father passed away. The presence of her mother and father and the impact they have clearly had on the woman she is today can be seen in the many photographs of both throughout the grounds. Nothing however is more powerful than hearing Ms Bagchi speak of ‘her’ gardens, her ‘workers’, ‘her’ plants. She climbs into her Jeep every day and drives throughout the estate stopping to pluck with her workers. Yes – she plucks tea with her workers. And when she isn’t able to be out in the gardens for a few days, her workers start asking after her and worrying about what has kept her away.
Harishpur not only creates beautiful teas, the golden tips being teagirl’s favourite, but they have developed and entire community that continues to give back. From the primary school to the hospital to the community centre; and yes, even to the Keya Bagchi Foundation dedicated to her mother. The foundation organises local women and teaches them to weave and craft selling their goods then back into the community. Believe it or not…teagirl did try her hand at the loom and has decided to stick with tea instead!
As a woman, I take great energy from women, and there is truly only one word I can use to describe Suparna Bagchi – FIERCE! She is determined and strong, she is focused and dedicated. She is the beating heart and glowing soul of this tea estate.
Returning to reality has been difficult and tea girl is itching to get back to telling you about her journey to India. If I told you that the hospitality in India was overwhelming, I wouldn’t possibly do it justice. You can imagine my face as we drove up to Dikom Estate in Assam to the beautiful colours of red and white, tea pluckers dressed in traditional costume performing a song for us. To be specific, the Jhumar Dance, which is so delightful. The happiest people singing a song of welcome to us. If you think we were able to get away with not joining in, you are mistaken. We held hands with the beautiful ladies and joined in their song of welcome and celebration.
You become overwhelmed by kindness when Indrajit Roy, the Vice President of Marketing for the Rossell Tea group changes his schedule in order to greet you at the estate. And equally overwhelmed when Mr Bedi – the Managing Director for Rossell Tea and his beautiful wife, go out of their way to join you for a dinner. These are friends and faces I see in North America, and I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be able to visit them in their home – beautiful India.
Dikom is a vast and beautiful estate that is setting the bar within the Rossel group of tea companies when it comes to social services and care of their workers. This has been a discussion we’ve had at a number of estates, but none illustrated it better than Samar Chaliha, Dikom’s Estate Manager. In detail he went through the initiatives being taken to provide a healthy social network not only for the workers in the gardens and factory, but also for the children of the workers.
Oh, and yes, of course they have some of the most beautiful Assam teas. This is where Golden Butterflies and Golden Pearls are made. Two teas that were winners of the North American tea competition. I have had the pleasure to taste these teas before, but believe me when I tell you that nothing is quite the same as drinking these teas with the people who have actually made them.
Teagirl took something very important away from the visit at Dikom – beautiful products and beautiful people all co-exist under one roof. As their slogan goes: To the world you are a person. To a person you are the world.