Burgundy is to wine. Castleton is the estate in Darjeeling that produced a crop of first flush - the first crop of the season - that sold for a record
price in 1992.
The story is one of sweet fable: the estate had been in decline for some years under a management that had lost its nerve, then its fortunes began to turn. In his travelogue history of tea and its gardens, The Gunpowder Gardens, Jason Goodwin tells of the scene at the auction room as related by the auctioneer Armajeet:
"The highest price to date was 217 rupees, but I opened the bidding at 200. There was a great silence. I thought, oh dear. And then the room exploded. At 1,000 chips the room was packed - the other auction-rooms had drained when word got round. All other business stopped. It was damned hot. Brooke Bond hadn't made a bid yet, but when it looked like Lipton was about to take it, Brookie moved in against him. The price was way up, too far to end well, really. I had to almost choke the bidding off: 13,001 rupees a kilo to Brooke Bond. The place was in uproar. We went off and cracked some Champagne."
Castelton was my first stop when I visited Darjeeling, and, like the Japanese on whose behalf Brooke Bond were rumoured to have been acting, I would agree that the tea is an exquisite liquor, with its essential briskness and notes of muscatel.
Castleton is at the upper end of a growing market in single-estate teas. The bulk of tea produced is sold for making up into standardised blends that will provide the consistent uniformity of vin de table. There are, however, a handful of teas that remain unblended as originals. To blend a good tea would be a cruel waste. There is no such thing as the sum of the parts: every time you mix a tea you lose 10 per cent of the edge of its quality.
Single-estate teas are known in the trade as "self-drinkers", and they are no accident. They usually derive from high mountainous regions where the air is clear, the soil is good, and production is small - only the tender top two leaves and bud will be plucked, by hand, and an experienced estate manager will carefully steer the whole process.
For the expert tea-taster, the business of wine is a matter of envy: wine-tasters can bandy the names of vineyards, and bang on about vagaries in the weather and harvests and their words will with interest by informed wine enthusiasts. With tea, similar connoisseurship is just beginning to catch on.
The Japanese, French and Germans have been on to this for some time: they are the ones who have been driving production of single-estate teas forward. Only recently, however, has it been deemed appropriate to start marketing the teas with the estate name here.
All of the Darjeeling, Assam and Ceylon teas at Whittard of Chelsea - the high-street chain of specialised tea-shops - are single-estate, but only five or six are marked as such. "Were we to name them all it would become too much like Mariage Freres [the specialised tea shop] in Paris," says Giles Hilton, the product director at Whittard. "Customers are beginning to request specific teas, but it's gradual."
Whittard's answer has been to operate a more sophisticated mail-order service to market its single-estate teas. And now Williamson and Magor, the largest private tea-producing company in the world, has followed suit.
Williamson and Magor has 61 tea estates: 53 in Assam, and the remainder dotted over Darjeeling, Kenya and Tanzania. To date, its teas have been sold in bulk to other labels. Now it has selected 11 estates from which to market under its own name.
The teas start at around pounds 2.40 for 125g, and at the upper end of the scale is the Lingia, a Darjeeling second flush, which retails for pounds 11.75 for 125g. This may seem steep, but, as the company's taster says: "This is God and nature coming together." The tea is quite exceptional and comes from an estate set almost on the treeline at 6,000ft known as the "Golden Mile", where growth is very slow.
Before I visited Darjeeling, my notion of a tea garden was of the Anglicised equation of the Indian countryside: an area of jungle that had been turned into a neat, cultivated and compact plot, the sort of place you could stroll around in an afternoon.
I realised differently when I arrived at the gate of the Margaret's Hope estate: it was a half-hour drive over mountainous roads from there to the main bungalow, negotiable only by four-wheel-drive. And within the garden, there are entire villages with schools, shops, even a hospital.
When an estate falls under new management, the quality of the tea may rise or fall: not only will a tea vary from garden to garden, but there are small differences from year to year within the same garden. An expert taster will be able to identify the weather in a tea-growing area from the taste of the leaves.
As a consumer, once you become accustomed to a better quality of wine, it's very hard to go back to plonk. And so, too, with tea
Whittard mail-order list available from 0171-924 1888; Williamson and Magor mail-order list available from: 01582-664440.
Originally born of Penguin and its Sixties series, the mini series is now generating competitive clones such as the new Weidenfeld series of full-colour cookery booklets. The books are priced at 99p, for which you get 10 of the favourite recipes of 24 cookery writers and chefs. The chefs are all based in the UK, except for Roger Verge of The Main Course. The cookery writers are more international. I am greatly in favour of this new line in miniature literature as it makes for good browsing material. Especially appealing are Richard Olney's Cooking for Two, Michael Roux's Desserts and Yan-Kit So's Chinese.
A saucy tale
Certain essential dates crop up annually in a food writer's diary. One of these, rapidly becoming the most surreal of the year, is the Kikkoman Masters Challenge, in which chefs must create a main course to a specific theme using Kikkoman soy sauce, widely regarded as the finest on the market. As you might imagine, it is a playground for "creative" cookery and devising ways of using soy sauce that no one has previously thought of. This includes dousing oak chips over which to smoke salmon, or reducing it with balsamic vinegar as the basis for a sauce. The event comes complete with competitions to humiliate participants, in the manner of the Japanese game show. The game this year was to guess the sorbet - the flavour being horseradish and lemongrass (I kid thee not). What was really worrying was how many people got it right.
If Bruno Loubet had patented his "piccalilli" in the early days of his career I suspect he would never have had to work again. There is no doubt that relishes and sticky jams are his forte, and now he has launched his own range of jams, chutneys, and infused oils.
As someone who is vehemently against the notion of flavoured oils, I do concede to lobster oil (pounds 4.50 for 150ml) and curry oil (pounds 2.00 for 230ml). Both are difficult to make at home: the lobster oil is a great medium for passing on that bisque-like flavour to food, and a curry oil is perfect for when you want the perfume without the powdery presence of ground spices. And, yes, his piccalilli is here too (pounds 2.25 for 250ml). Plus, there are four jams: peach and basil, blackberry and liquorice, strawberry and rhubarb; and apricot, honey and bitter almond, all at pounds 3.35 for 250ml. Roll on breakfast. Available from L'Odeon, 65 Regent Street, London W1. Charity begins at home "The World's Biggest Dinner Party" sounds like my idea of hell. It is not quite what its name suggests - in reality a multitude of individual dinner parties to be held across the country where guests must contribute pounds 10 each to go towards the charity Childline. This is to be synchronised for the weekend of 25 October to coincide with Childline's 10th birthday celebrations. The organisers illustrate the event with examples of "impoverished students sitting down to beans on toast and Beaujolais", and "directors serving up to their secretaries" (dream on). How about ``partner cooks roast grouse, game chips, little bread sauce and gratin Savoyard, and does the washing up".
Bottoms Up stores will be putting together three different cases of wines at a discount to participators. Sponsorship forms are available from their stores from1 October. Alternatively, call 0171- 331 5300.
The wrong track
I have often heard tell of the efficiency of the French rail system, and, of late, I was able to compare the respective buffet cars on Eurostar and a TGV train on a trip to Montpellier in the south of France. It was Eurostar as far as Lille: standard international offerings of a sponge- like pizza and Danish pastries that had seen better mornings. I was relieved that lunchtime broke on the TGV Lille-Montpellier stretch of the journey, until, that is, we got a bill for pounds 25 for two sandwiches, a beer and a glass of wine. OK, so the sandwich was salami on campagne bread which is one step up from cheese and tomato, but the bread was stale, as was the walnut bread and cream cheese assembly. By comparison to Eurostar, prices had literally doubled.To add insult to injury, when we reached Valence, we sat in a crowded train for one hour as the line was picketed by signalmen who were having a party on the track, drinking quite what I could not see, a nice little Mersault perhaps. It seems they were in cahoots with the buffet car who announced over the tannoy: "We do apologise for this delay, we recommend you use it to take advantage of our buffet service." The striking signalmen and the train staff exchanged waves and thumbs up as we moved off