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Notes from a tea estate

I am beyond intrigued by the russet-hued liquid that’s playfully twinkling in the light of the midday winter sun, as I give a vigorous swirl to the goblet that contains it. I close my eyes as I take an excited, yet cautious sip off it. Almost immediately, my mouth is filled with an expected, intensely tannic astringency. What I haven’t prepared myself for, is a sweetness and undoubtedly alcoholic potency that belies its countenance.

Down To The T

My mind and taste buds are equally confused. Where am I? And what have I just drunk? I open my eyes and I am still very much at the lush Attabarrie Tea Estate in the village of Demow in Upper Assam, along the southern banks of the mighty Brahmaputra river. Where, just a few hours ago I had driven down to from Dibrugarh’s Mohanbari Airport along the NH 37.

And you, Dear Reader, just as I was at first, wouldn’t be wrong in assuming the aforementioned ‘russet-hued liquid’ to be what we lay folk know as black tea, sans milk and sugar. Or what tea experts prefer to use the more technical term “liquor”.

But interestingly, this too is a liquor of another kind. A homemade tea wine to be more specific. A unique, one-of-its-kind libation that I have never even heard of before, leave alone having tasted.

Pleased to have tried his long-in-the-brewing experiment on a food writer, no less (his words!), Shantanu Roy, the estate’s manager lets me in on his tea wine recipe that he says is produced from just the prized, needle-like bud of the tea plant, sugar, yeast and distilled water.

And just like that, I have had my rather unorthodox initiation into the realm of one of Assam’s greatest calling cards — its teas.

Underdog’s day

Producing roughly 55% of India’s tea, Assam, I learn, is home to around 850 big tea estates — just like Attabarrie where I am, that were set up during colonial times — along with lakhs of small tea growers or STGs as they are known locally. Again, it would be remiss to assume the big estates as domineering giants to the detriment of the STGs.

I am told that in a very recent retelling of the classic David and Goliath triumphant underdog battle, it is the STGs that are flexing their newfound muscles. They’re doing this by threatening to push estates in the organised sector out of the competition. A recent paper by the Tea Association of India (TAI) puts this into perspective.

The big estates, as per the new Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020, now have the responsibility, apart from cash wages, to make sure their workers are provided with a whole host of benefits. And rightly so. These range from free housing and medical facilities to subsidised food and primary education for their children. Something the STGs (defined as those who cultivate tea in an area up to 25 acres) are not encumbered by.

Prime pickings

But things seem far from gloomy at another big estate that I visit next. This time I’m at the Moran Tea Estate along the same NH 37 in Khatikhedi that was set up by the British in 1864.

As I drive through the fecund, jade green divisions (as blocks of the tea tree growing parts of the estate are called), I see tea pluckers enjoying their mid-session breaks. They’re sitting under the shadow of the very essential to tea cultivation shade trees, drinking their staple of salted tea water to stave off dehydration, I’m given to understand.

Farther along, other groups are back at their picking of the standard two leaves and a bud. They seem happy and content as they sing their songs that I’m told are used as a sort of local iambic pentameter to bring a certain rhythm to their picking.

Life seems almost idyllic at the estate. And why not? For the organised sector once again seems buoyed by the record-breaking sale of a kilo of Assam’s specialty orthodox tea from the Manohari Tea Estate in nearby Dibrugarh for an astronomical ₹99,999 at the famous Guwahati Tea Auction Centre a few weeks ago.

Maybe it’s their turn at the big stakes next.

The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.

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