At an important tea auction held in Las Vegas in 2006, a tea from India was sold at a jaw dropping $600 per kg. And nopes, it wasn't Assam or Darjeeling but the tea from the Nilgiri district of Tamil Nadu.
When you hear the name orange pekoe and pekoe cut black tea, you'd think these are a Chinese variety, but they are very much desi, thank you. While the orange pekoe is popular as a basic, medium-grade black tea made of whole tea leaves of a specific maturity, pekoe is a more delicate version with young tea leaves and buds. The region produces distinctive green, black and oolong teas. Then there's the winter frost tea. Harvested in winter, the frost of the nights acts as a stress factor for the tea shrub, which develops complex compounds as a defense, that add textures to the flavours of this strong brew. "Whenever I send tourists down south, they are sure to come back raving about Nilgiri tea. Personally speaking, I prefer the taste as part of a blend. But there are others with more adventurous tea cups," expresses Chitra Mehta, a Pune-based travel agent.
How to brew the perfect cuppa: Place a teaspoon of Nilgiri tea leaves for each cup of tea, in a teapot. Pour boiling water into the teapot and let the beverage brew for 3 to 5 minutes. Orange pekoe is best served without milk. If you like your tea with a spot of milk, pick the teabag or CTC variety.
What to expect in a cup from the blue mountains: Aromatic and flavourful with notes of dusk flowers and tropical fruits, Nilgiri tea is dark and intense. Over half of the tea from the plantations in the Nilgiri District is exported, the strong flavours are the perfect mate for tea bags. Most production happens through the CTC process, which results in a higher number of cups. The subtropical climate definitely helps. By and large, the plantations follow the Chinese style of hand rolling the tea.
Storm in a tea cup: In the '70s, '80s and '90s, the Nilgiri district relied on the erstwhile USSR for sales. But the collapse of trade in the '90s led to major losses followed by questions on quality. It did not help that the Tea Board of India charged some local producers with adulteration and closed down factories. However, that is not at all to deny the potential of this fabulous tea. To that effect, the United Planters Association of South India and the Tea Board of India have initiated programmes to improve cultivation practices in the Nilgiris. Almost half of the production is exported and the tea from the blue mountains has found a loyal fan following in the west.
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