Eating & Drinking: Hot flushes

FIVE MINUTES on the road in Darjeeling is totally terrifying - you fear for your life every second. The yearly tea schedule is far more tranquil, as long as you're not a tea grower. After lying dormant through winter, the bushes wake up in March and produce their first new growth. This is the first flush; it yields a pale tea (or liquor) with fresh flavours and mild astringency. The bushes are then left in peace for a couple of months until the second flush appears. These leaves yield a richer liquor, with deeper colour, and greater mellowness in the cup. After the second flush, the rains come and the tea is suitable only for blending. The best Darjeeling, without exception, is first or second flush.

Some estates are better for first flush, others for second. But everyone agrees that some estates are just better. They have the skill, money and terroir to make consistently great tea. But they don't always succeed. Dozens of variables affect each day's work during the five- to six-week picking season; the tea made from a single bush will change in character day by day - and sometimes from morning to afternoon. Because yields are low, several days' pluckings are blended to make a single "invoice" of 100lb to 125lb. Setting aside a particularly good batch isn't financially viable.

To compound the vagaries of nature, the manufacturing process is replete with variables. Minor processing mistakes can ruin wonderful leaves. Edward Foster, director of London tea brokers Thompson Lloyd & Ewart, says, "Some days a great estate makes poor tea." Arun Lama, manager of the Ging estate, Darjeeling, puts it in concrete terms: "If you make a mistake, the price drops from 1,600 rupees a kilo to 400." Even when things are going right, what happens in the factory has a huge impact.

Handling after manufacture is the final variable. Adarsh Sethia, director of Newby Teas Limited, says that tea tasted in the factory will have changed by the time the samples reach London - and changed again when the shipment arrives for packing. If they're then packed or stored badly, they'll deteriorate rapidly. In short, it's difficult to know what you're getting with Darjeeling.What's to be done? A blind tasting, of course. My three experts were Adarsh Sethia, Giles Hilton, tea-buyer for Whittard of Chelsea, and Edward Foster. Our tasting was in three categories: premium or single-estate Darjeeling, generic, and tea bags.

In the first category, quality was high with one exception: Harrods Darjeeling Muscatel, in which the tasters detected a "burnt" or "caramel" flavour from over-firing; this barely scraped three points together out of a possible 15. The other Harrods teas, from well-regarded estates, all did well: 11 points for Pussimbong and Chamong, 10.5 for the large but variable Castleton. The outright winner was Newby Premiere Estate Ging First Flush (pounds 9.99/100g) with 13 points. The Ging estate is one of the area's best; it is also a research centre for the whole industry. Joint second with 12 were Fortnum & Mason Jungpana Second Flush (pounds 15.75/125g) and Newby Special Premiere Estate Jungpana Second Flush (pounds 19.99/100g). The Newby tea was thought "more refined" than the Fortnum version.

Among the generic loose teas, again, my team commented on the high overall quality. There were three real stinkers: Fortnum & Mason, Twinings and Harvey Nichols. Each got a total of three marks. So did the Safeway example, which was tainted with foreign vegetation (possibly rose petals). The runner-up was Waitrose Select Darjeeling, which got 11.5, and the overall winner was Newby Single Estate Darjeeling with 12 points. Edward said of this tea: "It is exceptional for a mainstream Darjeeling."

Darjeeling tea bags are a different kettle of leaves. As Giles Hilton points out, "With the small leaf in a tea bag you've lost the Darjeeling identity". The lowest mark was for Harrods bags (pounds 4.95/50 bags). Twinings (pounds 1.59/50 bags) also did badly. The overall winner was Sainsbury's (pounds 1.19/50 bags).

Sweeping conclusions from this tasting? You can obviously be sure of getting high quality from Newby's top end. From everyone else, there's a certain amount of luck involved. If I were seeking an introduction to Darjeeling, I would go to Newby (0800 136662), Fortnum, or Whittard. I would buy both first and second flush. I would brew them properly (seek advice), compare and decide what I like. It's a small step. But Darjeeling is so endlessly mysterious that even a small step is a major achievement.

To drink now

What a difference a pound makes in California! Gallo Turning Leaf Vintners Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 (pounds 7.99, Sainsbury's) is not worth buying at any price. By contrast, Beringer Vineyards California Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 (pounds 8.99, Berkmann Wine Cellars, Majestic) is suave, ripe black-currant fruit - a wine in balance. Multiply the extra pounds 1 by five and you're closer to reflecting the difference in quality. On a less serious note, look at Mod-Italian L'Arco Chardonnay 1997, Friuli (Somerfield, pounds 4.49), made by Australian John Worontschak; nice light citrus fruit with spritzy acidity and a gentle touch of oak.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?