We stood outside the Cochrane Place Hotel taking in the openness created by the huge drop behind the small concrete wall. The journey up to Kurseong in the Darjeeling District of West Bengal, India had been special to say the least.
We had climbed over 4000ft since leaving Siliguri in a cramped 4x4. Putting the amazing views and scenery aside we were still marvelling at the man who had ridden the whole way standing on the back bumper. From all the other vehicles similar to ours it seemed you just couldn’t travel this route without such a passenger!
Once we had become accustomed to the view we looked down towards the valley floor covered in a carpet of neat tea bushes. This was our first view of the Makaibari Tea Estate.
The next day we wandered down to the front gate of the dormant Makaibari factory (we had come out of the picking season). To our surprise we were invited inside and told that Mr Banerjee, the owner, would be happy to meet with us after a tour of the factory. Walking into the factory we found ourselves in a world which neither of us knew much about - a world involving processes such as withering, bruising, oxidisation and drying using machines that had been built in the UK and that were still in use today. A sign reading ‘Please do not touch teas - Tea is Our God’ showed the regard that the leaves were held in.
Tour finished, we were ushered into a wooden building separate from the factory. Mr Rajah Banerjee welcomed us to his office with a huge smile and a firm handshake. Dressed in khaki, a belt round his waist and hefty walking boots on his feet, he was everything we didn’t expect, but perfectly in keeping with his surroundings.
Mr Banerjee’s personal tea maker soon appeared with a teapot of the estates finest Silver Tip tea, which is picked under full moon beams. Now until this point Rob had been a bit of a tea sceptic, put off tea at a young age and a bit baffled by the many types and flavours. After five or six cups of this Silver Tip Tea he was well and truly turned.
Whether it was just the incredible taste of the tea, the location, the company, the conversation or all of the above, it was an hour we have never forgotten and a memory that still inspires us. If Rob, a non-tea drinker can enjoy such an amazing turn around then we feel that given the right tea, some guidance on how to prepare it and the right environment most people should be able to enjoy this fine drink. Above all it taught us that the key to an amazing tea experience does not depend on the leaves alone, but with the time taken and the place where it is enjoyed.
We were then lucky enough to accompany Mr Banerjee on a walk through a small part of his magical estate (see the picture on our home page!) After being introduced to many of the tea workers, spotting a wild pig (but none of the leopards that live there...) and getting up close to the tea bushes, we parted company with Mr Banerjee and walked excitedly back to the hotel. At that moment we knew that the tea business that had been very much driven by Michelle’s passion for tea, was now very much a shared ambition.