Tea, tea and more

My cousin Jacob Matthew would shudder if he was to drink the first tea manufactured in the Nilgiris.  The tea leaves harvested from the experimental farm near Ketti was withered in the open and then fired in an open pan.

But the men who pioneered this experiment to grow and manufacture tea in the Nilgiris loved the brew.  Today tea manufacture is a complex affair, involving not just technology but also skill. Jacob is a purist and an expert in blends and tea manufacture.  The teas he manufactures are highly priced. 
Coming back to tea, according to Gazette reports, tea growing in the blue mountains of South India go right back to 1833. It all started with a doctor called Christie noticed an indigenous variety of Camellia grew in large quantities near Coonoor.  The flower and leaves of the Camellia were similar to tea.  He realized that tea could also be grown in these mountains.

Tea was a prized possession and at the heart of England’s trade with China.  Try as they might, the British found that the secrets of tea growing and manufacture were elusive.  It was only after the Opium War that tea seeds were taken out of China. 

The good doctor Christie ordered some tea seedlings from Calcutta.  But he died before they arrived.  So when it finally arrived in Coonoor, they had to be distributed to other growers. 

Seeds continued to be brought out of China.  In 1835, more seeds were distributed among the planters in Coorg, Mysore and parts of the Madras Presidency.
Tea plantation in the Nilgiris : Photo courtesy Jude Thaddaeus

In the Nilgiris, they were planted in an experimental farm near Ketti.  But this experiment was a failure because the seedlings were not planted properly.  Soon this experiment was abandoned and the house in the property was leased to the Governor of Pondicherry. 

A French Botanist G.S. Perrottet accompanying the Governor found that the plants were completely buried under the soil.  He replanted the seedlings and by 1838 they had grown a full four feet with fruits and leaves.

Tea was also grown in Bilikal and by 1840 the tea from Ketti and Bilikal was processed and sent to Madras where tea enthusiasts ooowed and ahhhed over it.

A few years later one Mr Mann procured good quality tea seeds from China and planted in what was called Coonoor Tea Estate.  In 1856, the tea from these plants was favorably reviewed in London.  Mann however, became very disillusioned as the Government did not allot any more jungle land to him to grow tea.

Around this time, one Rae planted tea near Sholur at what came to called Dunsandle Estate.  Tea was also planted in Thaishola Estate.  The then Governor of Madras, Sir William Denison brought in some Chinese tea makers from the North West Province in an attempt to provide some technical knowhow to the fledgling industry.

By 1869, about 300 acres of tea was planted in the Nilgiris and no less than 18 tea growers or planters as they came to be known exhibited their produce at the annual agricultural fair at Ooty.
James Wilkinson Breeks, the first Commissioner of Ooty was so impressed that he sent these samples off to England.  These samples were rated as good and very good at Mincing Lane – the hub of the world’s tea and spice trade.  Incidentally, Mincing Lane was also the centre of the English trade in opium.

Jacob tells us that tea manufacture, grading and blending have become very complex.  High altitude teas, as well as specialty tea are in great demand in the world market. Though most of the teas available in the supermarkets are blends- of Assam, Nilgiri and Kerala teas,  the tea connoisseurs would swear by single estate teas.         


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