Sunday, October 9, 2011

Tea Talk

Sometimes, talking about tea is as nice as drinking it. We did both yesterday, at our favourite tea store in Sunder Nagar (Delhi), with our favourite tea seller, Mr. Mittal. We had not visited him for over a year and as we walked beneath 'Mittal Teas' written in a green cursive hand, past the window display of teapots of all shapes and sizes and through the old doorway, we saw faces wreathed in smiles. Mr. Mittal was bending over a can of tea leaves and his erstwhile assistant welcomed us in. Luckily there were no other customers and we settled down for a bit of talk and a spot of tea. Mr. Mittal had just procured some high altitude Sikkim tea and was very keen that we taste it. His assistant efficiently set up the tea tasting, with a little pot, a sand timer and three cups. Another assistant brought out some dried lychees and grapes, a new line of Mittal's products.

Mr. Mittal explained that most of the dried fruit in India came from the Middle East, but now there were several organizations that had begun fairly innovative work in the Himachal and Uttaranchal hills. The fruit had been gathered from there and slowly and naturally dried; they were also getting wild rose petals and herbs of different kinds from the same region - plants that locals would initially try to destroy using herbicides had been shown to have useful properties and were now being gathered and sold. Mr. Mittal did not use the herbs but was making interesting looking mixtures using bright pink rose petals mixed with green lemongrass or yellow chamomile and a few tea leaves. My mind drifted to real rose flavoured curd and other desserts and I immediately asked for some petals - they are extraordinarily light. Twenty grams of petals were filled into a large bag for me.

The tea was ready and we sipped it slowly. The talk turned to infusions. Had Mr. Mittal tried pandan leaf tea, which was one of our favourites from Cambodia? Yes, indeed, he had - one of his friends had given him a large packet and every day last year he would brew it in his shop and the entire area would be infused with a Basmati rice- like smell (which would make Mr. Mittal very hungry!). Lately he had tried allspice leaves, another gift from a friend - and the leaves would slowly unfurl and try to attain their original shape in the water, and fill the air with their unmistakable tang of cloves, cinnamon and more. I was amazed; I have a large allspice plant in my garden and have been waiting all this while for the berries, without realizing that I could use the leaves so simply and effectively.

Sikkim tea drunk, approved of and ordered, we got up and examined other recommendations for the year. This has been a good year for tea and Mr. Mittal was telling us about the extraordinary development and innovation done by planters in the southern stretch (the Nilgiris) over the last few years. Nilgiri tea was never a competitor to Assam and Darjeeling originally, but now they have begun to grow and process some very fine green teas as well as organic teas. We smelt a hand rolled green tea - it was very fruity and fragrant. Mr. Mittal described its flavour, which sounded delicious, and so it was added to our list. Our list undoubtedly grew - as we looked and smelt and heard! A standard, good quality Darjeeling (though, in my view there is nothing 'standard' about Darjeeling - it remains my most favourite tea), a delicate, clean flavoured, top of the line tea called 'Silver Tips', and then - Mittal's spices...

Over the years, Mr. Mittal has also begun to provide good quality, well cleaned spices, whole and ground, in his shop. I always buy powdered cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, needing them for cooking and not being able to grind them as finely at home. Also, finely ground sea salt and an authentic looking mix for tandoori food (minus the obligatory orange food colouring!). Dried lychees and apricots (Mr. Mittal said they acquired a flavour similar to fresh fruit when infused, but we shall just eat them as they are) - and the big bag of rose petals (Mr. Mittal's gift to me) completed the list. I pointed to a pile of Spanish saffron and Mr. Mittal described how he had tested the Spanish and Indian varieties by making infusions and the high quality Indian varieties, in his opinion, were better than the Spanish ones that came one's way.

At the end of it, after having thoroughly soaked in the teas, spices and fruit - all our senses completely saturated, we walked out into the smoky Delhi air, with the warm glow that comes with a morning well spent.

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