Fragrance of Munnar Hills

Eighty five miles from the tropical palm fringed coastline of Kochi, tucked into the Western Ghats mountain ranges lays the picturesque town Munnar. With panoramic views of low-flying clouds, mist filled valleys, and verdant tea and spice plantations, it is breathtakingly beautiful. Munnar was the summer resort of the British Government in South India. Even today the town retains its old colonial charm with neat bungalows with manicured gardens. The mountain air is saturated with the fragrance of fresh spices and tea. The climate in Munnar is cool because of the high altitude and the very heavy monsoons from June to September.

Thirty minutes after we left Kochi the road started climbing; it would climb all the way to Munnar, a climb of about 5300 feet. Our van began to drone as it climbed higher and higher. On looking down below, the road looked like a black ribbon thrown by a careless hand over the hills. We drove past many small villages dotted with churches and temples. At one turn on the road, we got a fine view of the peaks in the morning sun. Again out of sight and again visible at times as our van weaved its tortuous way up the hills. Then suddenly it would disappeas as the road hugged the mountain after a turn. We left the widows open to breathe in the mountain air. The intoxicating fragrance of cardamom was in the air as we drove past spice plantations. After many more countless turns and twists on the road we reached Munnar by noon.

The sky was a beautiful blue and the hills and the steep slopes were carpeted with lush green tea plants. Plantation workers with large burlap bags on their back were moving among the tea plants plucking tea -two leaves and bud at a time. It was amazing to watch them walk briskly along steep slopes with just a pair of rubber thongs on their feet. They seemed quite comfortable when tourists watched them work and were only too happy to pose for pictures. We drove further, and climbed again, to the Plantation club where lunch was arranged for us. Old colonial ambiance was quite visible in the décor of the club, but the food was traditional Indian. After lunch we visited the tea processing facilities Lockhart Tea Estate owned by Harrison Malayalam Plantations.

The economy of Munnar is heavily dependent on the cultivation of tea. Coffee and over twelve varieties of spices including cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, nutmeg and cardamom are also grown here. There are about 30 sprawling tea plantations in Munnar. The surrounding hill slopes are covered with orderly rows of tea bushes; the plantations stretch for miles only interrupted by pockets of rain forests teeming with lush vegetation. A very unusual flower Neelakurinji blooms here, but only once in twelve years and covers the hills with blue petals. It is expected to bloom again in 2006.

The tea plant is a single-stem bushy plant ranging from 20 to 60 feet in height. Regular pruning keeps its height to a more manageable 4 to 5 feet tall. It has an economic life of 40 years with regular pruning and plucking. Tea bushes are planted 3 feet to 5 feet apart to follow the natural contours of the landscape on specially prepared terraces to help irrigation and to prevent erosion. Trees are planted in between the tea plants to protect them against intense heat and light. Tea is cultivated on 59,000 acres of land in Munnar and surrounding villages with an annual yield of 55,000 tons. Four years after planting the tea plants are ready for harvesting.

Tea leaves are mostly hand picked, two leaves and a bud together, every 5- 10 days. An experienced tea leaf picker can pluck up to 30 kg tealeaves per day. Mechanical plucking although more efficient is seldom used due to lower quality of yield. To make one pound of black tea, it takes approximately 4 pounds tea leaves.

As soon as the newly picked leaves reach the factory, processing begins. The leaves are spread out over a large area for up to 24 hours where they lose some of their moisture. Sometimes heated air is piped over the withering racks to speed up the process. From the withering-racks the soft, green leaf is sent to the rolling machines where the leaf is rolled and broken up to release the tea flavor. From the roller the tea is moved to coarse mesh sieves. The fine leaves that fall through are taken to the fermenting rooms, while the coarse leaf is returned for further rolling.
Tea leaves are spread on cement or tile floors in a cool, damp atmosphere. As the leaves ferment they turn bright copper color. This tea is sent to tea driers where a continuous blast of hot dry air is forced over the leaves. Finally, the dried teas are sorted and graded by leaf size. Black teas are teas which have been allowed to ferment. They are graded according to the size of leaf, though the quality of the tea depends on growing conditions and the manufacturing process.

Around four in the afternoon we left the Lockhart Estate and began our drive down to Maduai on the other side of Western Ghats. There was chill in the evening breeze and we rolled up the windows. Plantation workers were returning home after a hard day’s work. Still intoxicated by the magic of the mountains we drove down slowly towards Madurai, the ancient capital of Pandyan kings.

A brief history of tea

Tea is one of the most widely enjoyed beverages in the world. There is a colorful and fascinating history behind this everyday brew. According to an ancient Chinese legend, tea was discovered by chance by a Chinese Emperor in third millennium B.C. During the reign of Tang Dynasty in 7th century A.D. many of the rituals and traditions surrounding tea were established. During the reign of the Ming Dynasty (from 1368 A.D. to 1644 A.D) trade flourished and tea was one of the major commodities.

All tea produced in China was originally green. Chinese growers were challenged to preserve tea's delicate qualities during the long voyages to Europe. Tea producers of the Ming period invented the fermentation method to make it suitable for long distance trade. Though Europe's first taste of tea was green, the trend slowly changed to black.

Tea reached Russia a very long time ago through the camel caravans of the Silk Road. Early seventeenth-century Dutch and Portuguese traders introduced Chinese tea to Europe. The mysterious brew that came with cargoes of silks and spices was not an instant success. Europeans preferred the flavor of coffee.

The British waited until 1652 to trade in tea. Tea got a boost in 1662 when Charles II married a Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, a tea connoisseur. During the second half of seventeenth century tea consumption increased in Britain. This new brew of exotic origins soon had many loyal fans. Tea was a precious commodity and tea drinking became fashionable in high society. Towards the close of the seventeenth century the British East India Company gained monopoly of tea trade. It was the golden age of tea and the East India Company.

Things took a turn in 1834 when The British Government cancelled the company’s monopoly of tea trade. In 1849 when the British Navigation Acts were repealed, anyone in the world could bring tea to a British port. By then the East Indian Company had started growing tea in India.

The British parliamentary act of 1767 that decided to tax American colonies for imports ended America’s fascination for tea. When the British sent seven shiploads of tea from London to Boston, angry Americans boarded the ships and threw 340 chests of tea overboard. The Boston Tea Party ended America's taste for both the British and their tea.

Tea and Tradition
The Chinese serve green teas and some oolongs, both without milk. Black teas are produced solely for export. In a Japanese tea ceremony guests sit on mats and the hostess perform every aspect of the ritual, from lighting the fire to serving the tea. The tea ceremony is still popular in Japan and there are schools where people learn the ancient art of the tea ceremony. Russians drink tea all day long - hot, strong, black, and with honey, sugar, or jam. The Russian desire for tea at any time of the day is satisfied by the samovar, a continuous source of hot tea.

Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, is credited with the British tradition of after-noon tea. The Victorians perfected afternoon tea and introduced the full range of accessories to go with it. Fine porcelain cups and silver tea services became symbols of refined taste. In exotic tea gardens tea service was accompanied by good food. Afternoon tea was the lighter meal; high tea was the heavier one. Traditional accompaniments to a British afternoon tea are Scones, clotted cream, and home-made strawberry jam.

In colonial America, tea, silver and porcelain were symbols of wealth and social status. After the Boston Tea Party in the eighteenth century, Generations of Americans considered tea drinking unpatriotic until the discovery of iced tea. Today more than 80% of the tea consumed in the US is iced tea. British style afternoon tea is also gaining popularity in recent years with luxury hotels in major US cities recreating the ambiance of this old tea tradition.

India produces the most tea and also drinks the most tea. Tea is brewed with or without spices and it is usually served with milk and sugar. At and roadside teashops, tea provides an instant pick-me-up and a chance to linger for a moment. The variety of snacks served with tea varies with location. In Kerala the spicy parippuvada is considered the quintessential accompaniment to tea.

Tea I India
Today India is one of the world’s greatest producers of tea. While the tea plant was growing wild in the jungles of Assam a long time ago, commercial production of tea in India started only in the late 1830s. When they lost the monopoly of tea trade from china the East India Company began tea cultivation in India. Despite confirmations from the company’s own employees that the plant was indigenous to the Assam area, The British were not convinced. They cleared the high ranges of Assam and planted seedlings from china.

However, those plantation workers who believed tea was indeed native to India did not destroy domestic tea trees. As they cleared areas of land to develop plantations, they also pruned the domestic shrubs to encourage new growth. Ironically, while the native plants flourished, the Chinese seedlings struggled to survive in the Assam heat. Eventually the British decided to make plantings with seedlings from the native tea bush.

The first batch of Assam tea reached England in 1838 and was very well received. Tea cultivation expanded to the foothills of Himalayas and the Western Ghats mountain ranges of Kerala. By the 1850’s tea was growing beautifully in all plantations. In 1853 India was able to send its first shipment of tea abroad. Today India is one of the largest producer’s of tea and provides work for over two million people.

AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN