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Tea Fragrance of Munnar Hills, South India
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. Then suddenly it disappeared as the road hugged the mountain after a turn. Again out of sight, and visible at times again, as our van weaved its tortuous way up the hills. 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 Madurai, the ancient capital of Pandyan kings 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.
A financial analyst turned freelance food writer, Ammini Ramachandran, writes about the history, culture and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India, on her web site http://www.peppertrail.com. Her recipes and articles have been featured in The Providence journal, Flavor & Fortune, www.leitesculinaria.com, and www.ThingsAsian.com. She is working on a cookbook about the vegetarian cuisine of Kerala against a backdrop of cultural and culinary history. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and Culinary Historians of New York.