In 2017 with the closure of Darjeeling I travelled to the Dooars to learn more about this lesser known region. This area is far less well known that the nearby Darjeeling hills but there is much to be discovered here as beautifully described by the Department of Tourism West Bengal :
"The Dooars or Duars are the foothills of the eastern Himalayas in North-East India around Bhutan. Duar means 'door' and the region forms the gateway to Bhutan from India. ...... This region is divided by the Sankosh River into the Eastern and the Western Dooars. The Western Dooars is known as the Bengal Dooars and the Eastern Dooars as the Assam Dooars. Dooars is synonymous with the term Terai used in Nepal and northern India and form the only nitrate rich plain in India."
I'm not sure how many people visit this area looking for tea but to cut a long story short after meeting a number of small holders an article ended up appearing in the regional newspaper with our photo. A few days later I received an email from Sonia..."Hello! Just read the news that you are visiting Jalpaiguri and looking at small tea growers to source tea. Please don't leave the area without visiting us at Nuxalbari Tea Estate”. By the time we received this message it was too late to visit but we vowed to return the following year. This was to be a connection and a visit that would have a deep personal impact on me.
Let's start at the beginning. Our interest in tea started at Makaibari, a larger, and at the time family run garden. Here Rajah Banerjee ran the estate in accordance with a philosophy that resonated far beyond the hills. Perhaps it is because our journey with tea started there that I have always believed that we should not judge a garden on its size, more on it's purpose. Why do I bring this up? In the specialty sector I have sometimes got the impression that larger gardens are all lumped together - labelled as being too 'commercial', assumed to all operate as part of one large machine or system. I've never bought into this, preferring to judge each garden, each tea and the relationships that surround them on their own merit. So when on deeper investigation I discovered that Nuxalbari was a 1200 acre property - much larger than some we work with - I was not discouraged. Before my trip we chatted over email and what emerged was a fascinating story of one woman and her desire to be a force for change. Positive change. And in the black tea sector this change is sorely needed. According to estimates, the tea industry is India's second largest employer. It employs over 3.5 million people across some 1,686 estates and 157,504 small holdings; most of them women set this against the falling demand for the traditional black tea 'cuppa' in the UK market alone and you can start to build a picture of why "doing things the way they have always been done" is just not going to cut it for the modern tea drinker or indeed secure a positive future for the millions who rely on this industry.
Enter the modern pioneers of the black tea industry. Our travels have shown us that these people can take many forms. On the grower side these range from those choosing to challenge the 'large garden model' and start or support organic farms, to people like Sonia working hard to show that reform is possible and indeed necessary in the large garden system. This latter example is no mean feat. Nuxalbari is a 1200 acre property is home to over a thousand families of workers - all reliant on its success and in turn its success reliant on them. The setting is beautiful - nestling snugly in the lap of the Eastern Himalayas - but challenging - sitting outside the designated 'Darjeeling area' but within the Darjeeling district the price that tea from this region can attract is significantly lower [Nuxalbari does not make the altitude to be included in the geographical indication]. Here tea grows in a tropical paradise with lush vegetation, birds, wild langurs, the solitary leopards and herds of Asian Elephants which are encouraged to criss-cross the estate. More on those later.
Sonias great grandfather planted and owned 33 estates from upper Assam to Bengal. He is pictured below on the top with her grandfather below.
Over time the gardens owned by the family were gradually sold off until just one remained - Nuxalbari. The garden was run successfully by her mother for 30 years until her untimely death in 2011 when it passed to Sonia -and in her own words “since then I have slogged to try and make magic”. On visiting Nuxalbari I was to uncover just how hard this work has been. The results? Great tasting organic orthodox tea underpinned by a beautiful connection between tea grower and land. You will have heard much about the importance of the relationship between people and land before in our stories - it is a common thread that sits behind so many great teas - but the story here is particularly poignant. It is a story about survival, revival and complete single minded focus on doing the right thing, taking the right path, no matter how difficult. I feel, and hope that the story of Nuxalbari can shine bright and see tea from this lesser known region be asked for, and recognised by name.
So back to that day in July. Travelling back from Nepal we arrived early at the border with Kakkavitta and after a few plates of momos [of course!] and a wait at the border patrol office we found the jeep and guys who had come to collect us.
This was the last stop on a long trip and, as it turned out the end of a long few days for Sonia and her team. We arrived at the garden and met Sonia and some wonderful friends who had gathered to work with her on projects across the estate. One such project is Hathi Sathi a biodiversity and elephant conservation project focused on educating the next generation - the children - on the importance of living in harmony with these wonderful creatures. The end of a long hard but fun few days working with the children saw us greeted by an exhausted but enthusiastic group.
“Our garden, manufactures high quality black teas, both CTC and orthodox as well as green tea. We have 12 acres certified organic and plans to convert another 370. .....At times making a success of a garden like this is really difficult. [What people perhaps do not realise is that...] the cost of our inputs have gone up and our selling price has remained static or even declined. Small tea growers don't have the same statutory laws regarding labour that we do. They can simply close down over the dormant period in winter whereas we have to employ a permanent labour force.
As we talked it became apparent that Sonia was different from anyone I had met before. Across the world we work with brilliant men & women in the world of tea but it is fair to say that, in our experience, in the larger garden setting it is predominantly men in charge. What really sets Sonia apart however is far beyond that, she is strong, brave, determined and principled - qualities that are key to making change in this sector.
Sonia explained to me how across the large garden sector people are heavily focused on increasing yields - a strategy that is linked to bringing down the cost of production with the hope that this can allow them to compete with small tea growers. This is a strategy that she does not believe in '[this is] nature and living soil and you can't keep increasing yield without depleting the land. I am doing the opposite, honouring the soil, my tea bushes and trees, honouring the people who work for me, while trying to make good quality teas.' This was music to our ears but lets not be naive - for Sonia this is a risk - and when you step outside the norm the journey can be quite lonely and there are no guarantees.
'I want to take you somewhere' - Sonia turned the jeep and took us across the tea fields. We stopped at the most magnificent tree just as the sun was setting. Clambering out of the jeep we carefully climbed down to under its huge trunk and branches, its huge leaves covered the floor. An incredible experience - an incredible feeling of nature and the respect for nature that exists here. We lingered a while but the dar was closing in. Back in the jeep we headed back for supper.
We awoke the next morning and wandered down the road to see the factory before the day started. The tea fields were beautifully still and the horses were returning from their morning exercise.
We were to spend the morning driving around the estate and visiting the organic section. Over tea in the garden we discussed the course that had bought Sonia to this point.
She explained how she converted the first area of the estate to organic after taking a course in Bhutan. It was to be a disheartening exercise from multiple perspectives. Firstly no-one believed it could be done - this is a tropical area - very pest friendly! The second was that the land did not initially respond well and the sections became weak. Lets not forgot - this is Sonia so you already know she didn't quit. Through a combination of work on drainage, careful observation of the land and intelligent observations of how smallholders manage land in other tea growing countries [i.e. disrupting monoculture & encouraging biodiversity] things improved and as we were to see later on our drive this section is now thriving and producing flavourful and aromatic teas.
Back in the jeep Sonia explained how we would take lunch overlooking the organic sections [above]. Driving through the garden she pointed out the many trees that have been planted over her time at Nuxalbari. Sonia talked of the pain of uprooting trees for new sections and how this act must be carefully undertaken with 'ritual and gratitude so that the trees understand how thankful we are for what they have done for the people here'. Such is the commitment to trees here that Sonia has taken on a retired forest department tree planter. Together they have planted 25,000 trees of 11 different species this year alone - this will continue for the next 5 years with the aim of attracting more birds and wildlife.
We finished our tour of the garden at the nursery and the area where the soil preparations are, well, prepared. Here we met Lalita who is the Sardar at the nursery [above in blue] and also an important community leader who helps with many of the social actions that Sonia oversees on the estate - health, micro savings, womens health etc. She was just one of the women who are critical to the transformation of Nuxalbari. Makhon, who is one of the leaders in the factory is another...amazing women doing amazing and important work.
My writing, this account can only merely give you an insight into the work, passion and dedication that goes into changing the trajectory of larger gardens like this. As I started this blog saying meeting Sonia and visiting Nuxalbari has had a deep personal impact on me and I would say I think about my relationship with nature and the world around me every day - far more than I did before this visit. Sonia and I are in regular contact. I mentioned elephants earlier - just last week Sonia sent me over this article sharing how Nuxalbari has become the first large tea estate in the world to be certified as elephant friendly.
I am a passionate advocate of educating people about the sheer diversity of black tea. Earlier I shared how sales of the 'standard cuppa' are declining - my hope is that this change will not see people turn their back on black tea but more encourage them to embrace the sheer diversity of high quality orthodox black teas - this is another world - and one that many many people are reliant on.
At Comins we are proud to serve and support Nuxalbari, this is more than just a cup of tea - it is a movement. And I hope that this story proves that larger gardens can be a force for positive change and by supporting them you can support that change. You can taste Sonia's beautiful organic second flush at our Tea Houses and buy online - and if you want to know more please just ask!