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.