The first part is all about Darjeeling tea & the second part is a review of our stay at Taj Chia Kutir
In a nutshell:
A beautiful stay at a lovely villa inside a beautiful property inside Makaibari tea estate, warm hosts, good food, great activities conducted by the hotel. Some seriously disappointing tea at breakfast & very disturbing ‘high tea’!!!!
Disclaimer: All restaurants / eateries reviewed by YUMMRAJ were visited by YUMMRAJ himself & he has paid for the full Bill & tips also. http://www.yummraj.com does not have even one featured / sponsored reviews. YUMMRAJ believes in going to a restaurant in anonymity, as a normal guest, experience everything & give a honest account of the same to you.
YUMMRAJ rates all the food items & then gives a final overall rating, which is a simple average of the individual item ratings. What the ratings stand for: 5 = Excellent, 4 = Very Good, 3 = Good, 2 = Fair, 1 = Disaster
We paid the trip through taj app & paid through amex points accumulated through purchases. Cost of taxi pick up & drop had to be paid directly at the hotel.
- Background of Makaibari tea estate
- About tea plant & the History of Darjeeling tea
- Tea Plant
- Story of Tea leaves – The journey from China to India
- The concept of flush
3. Taj chia Kutir experiences
a) Makaibari tea estate tour
b) Tea appreciation session
c) Taj chia Kutir property
d) Food & beverages at Taj chia Kutir.
- Background of makaibari tea estate
We were in Kurseong makaibari tea estates in 2015 & were lucky to meet the charismatic owner Mr. Raja Banerjee during that trip. Makaibari was started by a bengali family in late 1800s, when most other estates were run by the British. While the British brought the tea plantation to India, few bengali families had also started their tea estates. In the last decade, Mr. Banerjee sold his company to another bengali family run Tea company named luxmi tea.
Makaibari estate is spread across 1400 acres, of which only 500 acres are dedicated to cultivation of tea, to balance ecosystem. Rest is rain forests, that have many plants & also animals & birds like civet, wild boar, hornbill, python, leopards black panther etc.
- About tea plant & the History of Darjeeling tea
a) Tea plant
- Tea plant is a full grown tree (not a bush, not a shrub, not a creeper) that can live about a 1000 years.
- While the tree is full of leaves, all leaves aren’t good to make tea.
- For most teas, a combination of two young leaves & a bud attached to the tip of a single stem is selectively plucked. When you look for a bud (leaf), it has to be logically new. So the moment a leaf crosses the bud stage, it is no longer plucked. So plants are trimmed from time to time, to get fresh leaves.
- No animals eat tea leaf. Probably they find it bitter. That helps because there is no threat to the tea crop.
- Tea leaves are harvested from the gardens, processed in factories & sold thru auction.
- 100 kg tea leaves gives 23 kilos of final tea as the rest water from the leaf evaporates in the processing. The evaporation is necessary to ensure the longevity of the leaves.
- The same leaf is processed in different ways to make green tea (minimal processing), white tea, oolong, black tea (most processed) etc. & also lesser heard of teas in India like Pouer tea & yellow tea popular in Japan & China
- Green tea is high on antioxidants (slows ageing) but it has caffeine. White tea has high antioxidants & has negligible caffeine. During processing of Green tea, the leaves are passed through steam / dry hot air. That clogs the stomata, resulting in the antioxidants caffeine staying back. Tannin increases in this tea & hence there is a bitter aftertaste.
- Orange pekoe – the Darjeeling First flush tea does not have a black colour but bright orange. So it is referred to as Orange pekoe.
- Macha tea is a type of green tea. For this tea, the leaf is grown under shade in green house. Photosynthesis process reduces & hence the chlorophyll is retained. The harvested leaves are ground to 120 microns powder. That makes it Bitter. It has lots of antioxidants.
- For White tea, only the bud is harvested. The tea has no caffeine. No fermentation is done during processing.
- Darjeeling tea is brewed (steeped at hot water, temperature between 85-90 Degree Celsius) & best enjoyed without milk & sugar. People with lighter food habits enjoy this subtle flavour.
- Oxidised black oolong is steeped in fully boiled water. The non-oxidised green tea is steeped at 85 to 90 degrees for, 2-3 minutes. The measure is, 2.5 g for 150 ml of water.
- Silver tip tea which is harvested on full moon nights only is one of the most expensive Darjeeling tea. It’s rare & unique. The measure is to steep 2 g leaf in 150 ml water that has been heated to 90 degree Celsius for 3-5 minutes.
- For mixed flavored teas, the add-ons like bergamot are also sourced from like-minded organic gardens.
- The granular doodh chai that most of us drink is none of the above. It is Assam / Nilgiri leaf CTC cut trim & curl (processed). This is mostly not brewed, but cooked with milk & sugar (sometimes spices & ginger).
- The tea industry today is many times larger than what the British left us with. There are 40000+ tea gardens in Assam, 60000+ gardens in Nilgiris & 85 gardens in Darjeeling. The words ‘Darjeeling’, ‘Darjeeling logo’, ‘Assam logo’ & ‘Nilgiri logo’ are registered under geographical indication (GI) of goods act of 1999.
b) Story of tea leaves – The journey from China to India
- The Chinese have been drinking tea for 4000+ years. Tea arrived in Europe about 500 years back from China. The British got hooked to tea over the centuries & in early 1800s they decided to grow tea in India.
- Around the same time, in 1823, a British officer first came across some tribes in Assam, who were drinking a beverage by steeping local leaves in boiled water. This was what we now know as Assam tea. The British thought this tea was too strong & too less on flavours & lacked the finesse of Chinese tea. So they did not try to commercialize this & rather thought of asking the Chinese to sell tea saplings or tea plant seeds.
- The Chinese refused to sell tea seeds / plants. The British then sent a group of people (spies) led by Robert fortune to go to the interior tea growing regions & smuggle tea seeds.
- Robert Fortune & his men made multiple trips to the interiors citing botanical trade. They would buy flower plants from villages & would put tea seeds on the soil & cover that with more soil. So these were never caught at the customs.
- The seeds would germinate by the time they reached Calcutta port. The saplings were then sent to the Nilgiris in the south, Assam in the east & many other places.
- Darjeeling was mostly uninhabited those days. There was a lone Buddhist monastery on top of the hill – Dorje ling. The British planted tea plants here as well.
- In the uninhabited Darjeeling of mid 1800s, the British needed people to work in the fields. A Nepali nobleman named Dakman Rai solved this problem & relocated people from other areas (mostly Nepal). From the money he received for this service, he set up 3 tea gardens – Soureni, phuguri & Sampripani.
- The same plant that came from China, bore very different kind of leaves in different areas due to difference in soil, altitude, moisture in air, amount of sun (over exposure or under exposure), which side of the mountain etc.
- Nilgiris & Assam plantations have tea with more body & less flavours. Darjeeling tea however is high in Flavors & low on body.
c) The concept of Flush in Darjeeling tea
- There are multiple crops of Darjeeling tea from the same plant. December to February no plucking happens.
- First Flush – March-April the first harvest happens. This is the lightest in body & highest in flavours. This tea is very delicate. A little bit of over steeping will lead to an astringent feel. This is the most expensive tea of the year. With every flush the price reduces. Autumn flush is the cheapest.
- Second Flush – May-June harvest is second flush. This has a stronger mouth-feel & lighter flavour than the first flush. Some teas of second flush are said to have a distinct sweet flavour that reminds of a kind of grape that is found in Muscat. This particular second flush is also called Muscatel tea.
- Monsoon flush – Harvest from July-September. This is low on flavours & is way cheaper than the previous two. It is used to make flavored teas like earl grey, lemon tea etc & also herbal teas.
- Last harvest of the year, in the months of October & November is called Autumn flush. There is a feel of sweetness in the brewed tea but it is low on flavour.
Taj Chia Kutir experiences
a) Makaibari tea estate tour
The best part of this tour organized by the hotel was our guide for tea garden walk – Dayan. His simplicity, enthusiasm, warmth & knowledge of the subject all exceeded expectations.
- The slopes of the mountains on which the tea plants grow are quite steep. Most of these places we would not be able to climb. However, our guide Dayan told us that his mother (now 55 years old, a tea plucker since age if 13) climbs these slopes very easily due to years of practice from an early age.
- We saw three kinds of trimming – Base trimming (leaves in lower part of the plant completely removed), Top trimming (leaves in top part of the plant totally removed), Semi trimming. The same plant is given different types of trimming in alternate years so that new leaves & buds constantly grow.
- We saw three kinds of tree plants at makaibari tea gardens – 1) camellia sinensis variety sinensis – China variety (narrow leaves), 2) camellia sinensis variety Assamica – Assam variety (large leaf) & 3) Hybrid. Makaibari estate packaged tea has a mix of all these 3 varieties.
- Irrigation in the estate happens through sprinklers that draw water from the nearby Rakti river.
- We saw white marks on some tea plant stems. We got to know they are Lichens.
- We enjoyed Dayan breaking into a song once in a while during the walk. His enthusiasm was infectious.
b) Tea appreciation session
The session at the beautiful Taj Chia Kutir Tea lounge was conducted by Head sommelier of Luxmi tea, Parvez. He spoke in a common person’s language & explained the intricacies & technical pointers in great depth & detail. He patiently & happily (I assume) answered all our queries.
We were pleasantly surprised to meet Laltu at the tea lounge. We had met Laltu during our 2015 trip to Darjeeling & Kurseong. Those days Laltu was the tea expert at the nearby Cockraine place, a hotel with a character & a great view of Kanchenjunga.
Infact, in that trip, Laltu had taught me how to brew the perfect cup of first flush Darjeeling tea. We have been buying Makaibari tea for all these years since 2015 at home & have been enjoying first flush ever since.
Laltu now assists Parvez.
We heard of some interesting facts about tea trade from Parvez:
- While leaving India post-independence, the British took away the address book of global customers in 1947!!!! The tea estates had a tough time selling expensive teas in the early years.
- Russia was the first customer who revived the sales of Indian teas in those days. The teas exported to Russia had to be within a certain price band. An average quality was Ok for them.
- After USSR broke down in 1980s, EU took its place as the largest customer of Indian teas.
- Contrary to the Russians, Quality was the top priority of the Europeans. They were willing to pay a higher price.
- As Europeans started buying, many Darjeeling gardens faced problems because ethey had started using Pesticides & chemicals, which was a deterrent for selling to Europe.
- Makaibari was the pioneer in organic tea farming, long before organic became a fad. As of today, 95% gardens of Darjeeling are organic. Makaibari has received ISO 2022
- PArvez also explained to us the concept of the Biodynamic calendar of tea.
c) Taj chia kutir property
The name – Chia is how the Nepalese call tea
Most of the elements a the Hotel looked like natural materials, hand crafted. We found almost almost no plastic except water bottles in the Guest common areas & the rooms. We thought the bottles were totally out of place in this nature focussed property.
We thought that the hotel can give choice to guests during check in, to opt for filter water in glass bottle or PET bottle, similar to how it is done at restaurants.
The attention to detail in creating the property is mind blowing. The architect did a fabulous job.
The HR team did an amazing job by selecting really nice people.
We stayed in a beautiful suite. Impeccable. Beautiful. We just loved it.
The attention to detail in the food & beverage areas was a big miss. We would have loved to see similar creativity in designing the food & beverages menu.
- In all meals or during the ‘high tea’, Makaibari brewed tea was not offered. Instead tea bags were offered with hot water!!!! Pathetic. The nearby Cockraine place, Kurseong served freshly brewed tea every time we wanted to have tea. It’s like going to a beer distillery & being served kingfisher or going to a single Malt whiskey maker’s estate & being served hooch!!!!!
- There are only two restaurants in the property – the coffee shop & a North-West frontier food restaurant. We wish there were a British style cafe that served period food (what the tea planters would have been eating). Windamere hotel Darjeeling serves that food & it distinctly stands out. It’s got character. They bake scones!!!
- The local food of Darjeeling Kurseong has a super small section in the menu. In that also it was mostly chicken.
- Choice of red meats in the whole menu was poor. Not expected at a Taj in West Bengal where there is no ban on any kind of meats.
- Food was ‘good’ to ‘very good’ but there was nothing that would ‘make a mark’ or create a lasting memory. Great ingredients (vegetables fruits & honey) from the in-house organic farm but lack of imagination or lack of excellence in creating dishes out of the extraordinary produce. We wish someone as talented as the architect would have designed the food menu here.
- We had decided on having lunch on day 2 initially but after the multiple ‘very good but not outstanding’ meals, we decided to have lunch in Kurseong market.
d) Detailed description – Food & beverages at Taj Chia Kutir.
Lunch day 1
Gyatuk – Super thin potent soup with a hot aftertaste, crunchy veggies, mild flavours of chicken, major flavour of a local orange sauce. Thin noodles were perfectly cooked. The thin broth was full of flavour. Rate it 4.25/5
Mushroom & chhurpi momo was excellent.
Local cheese called chuurpi- flavours beautifully expressed in the momo. Bowled over. Rate it 4.5/5
Himalayan khukra curry – local home style chicken curry with heavy dose of garlic, semi thin gravy, very good to taste. Rate it 4/5
For dessert, we had Chakao Amudi, black rice kheer. It had a lovely texture contrast of rough rice vs creamy kheer. Rate it 4.5/5
We just did not like the look of pakoras & other things on order. So we paid & ordered food from the menu. No Darjeeling brewed tea was on offer.
Dinner day 1
The theme here was North west frontier food
Kakori kabab had outstanding flavours of meat & spices. It was a ‘melt in the mouth’ kebab with a thin film formed on the outer surface during cooking. The kababs had perfect balance of taste, everything just right. Our second most favourite ever, after the kakori kabab at Dum Pukht, ITC Maurya, Delhi. Rate the dish 4.75/5
Raan was really soft & had a good bite. It had the perfect texture. The taste was very good but we have surely had better. Rate it 4/5
Breakfast day 2
There were many options at breakfast. We chose a few from which we had high expectations. They turned out to be really good.
Eggs benedict both with ham & with salmon were very good. Rate them 4/5
Bircher muesli with orange zest did not have a slimy fermented feel that feels good but it did taste very good. The zest lent its flavours very well. Rate it 4/5
The Salmon was outstanding. We went for a second helping. Rate it 4.5/5
Organic garden greens were super fun to munch on.
At breakfast only tea bags are offered & coffee. I understand the cost concern that the hosts might have. I would have loved to pay for a great cup of tea.
As mentioned above, we were surprised that there is no option to even order for freshly brewed Makaibari Darjeeling tea as la carte. The lady Prerna, who was managing the floor was very proactive to say ‘give me 15 minutes. I will get the tea lounge opened & get tea for you.’ She did her best & we highly appreciate her efforts to give us a great experience.
It was strange that the coffee shop inside Makaibari estate Kurseong did not offer freshly brewed Makaibari Darjeeling tea!!!!
Tea bags were just so underwhelming.
Overall rating of food at Taj Chia Kutir averages out to 4.3/5
What we had was very good but we did not get too much choice of Darjeeling tea estate colonial food or Darjeeling local foods, of different kinds of meats etc. The challenge was not in the execution by the kitchen but in the design of the menu offering.
To conclude, great property, great people, unimaginative menu cooked well.