The tin box that has my latest poison is intricately designed with white on gold. The tin reminds me of those old almost black trinket boxes my Nani, one with the exotic name of Samsoon Nahaar, kept on her fireplace mantel in Shillong. However my treasure cove has no old beads and delicate brooches. It contains Frost Tea. One of the lesser known of its kind, Frost Tea is really a recent inclusion in the tea world. Unlike the Darjeelings or the Oolongs or the Assams even the Lapsang Souchongs of the world, Frost Tea is more like an Addendum in the Chronicle of Tea History.
Photo Credit: Sarah Huda
The Brahmaputra Valley of Assam, the blue Nilgiris and the hills of Darjeeling are the main tea producing belts of India. Primarily, March through April (first flush) and then May through June (second flush) is when tea is produced in these regions. Tea requires more than 20 to 21 degrees Celsius and good rainfall to grow. During the conducive months, the shrubs look green and fresh. As you move from bottom to top in a shrub, the leaves tend to get thinner. Towering slightly above the well-manicured shrubs are slender shoots that end with one bud and two leaves. This threesome in Assam is called “eti koli dutee paat”.
Photo Credit: Sarah Huda
These bud and leaves combos are plucked by tea pickers at dawn and then sent to factories for processing. The outcome is generally two: orthodox tea or the more popular CTC (cut tear and twirl) tea. In all the three belts, temperature starts dropping by the end of October. As winter approaches, tea shrubs are duly pruned and left to replenish their nutrients. Hibernation of sorts. These shrubs are kept dormant for 3-4 months. They sup up well during this dormancy. In addition tea and cold weather are not democratic to each other. You may like your piping hot tea on a cold day a lot but not generally the tea shrubs. Ambient temperature of 10 degrees and above is required for most tea shrubs to bloom into flowers and leaves. In India, barring few places, the thick of winter sees the flora specked with frost in the early mornings. Frost on tea shrubs adversely impact tea quality and production. Quite like vineyards, most of you who have seen the Keanu Reaves starrer A Walk in The Clouds will remember that. However, in the Niligiris the frost does allow a very special tea to be harvested: Frost Tea. Unlike tea shrubs in Darjeeling that completely go out of commission due to colder climes or in Assam that are deliberately pruned, frost or not, to improve productivity, in the Niligiris the growth of the flowers and leaves merely slows down. Slow enough for essential nutrients to concentrate the aromatic compounds in the shrubs. Frost tea is essentially orthodox tea.
The russet brown fruity flavored liquor that Frost Tea offers requires about two to three minutes of steeping. The water as always should never be boiling hot. As is recommended for almost all liquor worth their dime and time, the water for your tea should be poured out from your kettle a minute or two after you turn off the fire or rather when the auto cut-off goes off, in the case of electric kettles. One and a half teaspoon of orthodox Frost Tea can punch in a good deal of flavor for about 250 ml (1 standard teacup) of water.
I go sans milk. Excuse me but sans sugar too. Oddly I find adding milk or sugar to my cup of brew akin to adding these two jokers to a Riedel crystal of single malt. There is a more scientific reason for sipping your tea well brewed and cast aside the sugar and milk. Tea, orthodox not so much CTC tea, has goodness of flavonoids. As you move along the spectrum of white to green to amber to black tea, the percentage of these cancer fighting flavonoid compounds reduces. And what is more irksome than the tea with milk and tea without milk debate? Well it is the eternal “is coffee better than tea” debate. That I feel is plain ridiculous and an illogical discourse. All those who pooh-pooh tea should please recall that Boston Tea Party ultimately proved to be the catalyst to the American Revolution. As they say, there was too much trouble brewing and had the infamous Tea Act not been left to steep for too long, who knows maybe the war could have been avoided all together and Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks would have served gallons of tea in Continental US.
History takes its own course and what is bygone is bygone and we shall please learn from it that denying someone tea can lead to unpleasant things. It’s a good practice to alternate your tea with some short eats. Some cake may be or say some biscotti? Or may be that scone freshly baked and smothered with butter? Well whatever suits your palate. In Assam, black tea (tea sans milk) is also enjoyed with a teaspoon of seera (beaten rice) or till pitha (sesame savoury) by the local population. Fills you up pretty well that teaspoon of beaten rice and I must say that the absence of all the refined flour and sugar that ordinarily your cookie or cake or other confectionaries will surely contain, will not be felt much.
Photo Credit: Sarah Huda
As I sit in a French bistro about to bite into those toothsome macaroons and sip my Darjeeling, undeniably my first love, I spot the olive green merchandise rack. There sitting pretty is another tin of Frost Tea that I must remember to buy.