City of teatime joy

zac o?yeah | Updated on October 04, 2019

Morning glory: Terrace breakfast at the ultra-extravagant Glenburn Penthouse in Kolkata   -  ZAC O’YEAH

Whether you get your fix sipping Darjeeling at tea o’clock in an exclusive resort or at the round-the-clock roadside chaiwallah, your cup truly runneth over in Kolkata

High tea in orthodox circumstances is served at around 4pm in the finer salons of the Taj Bengal or Great Eastern, where éclairs and croissants adorn the spreads; yet, in Kolkata’s streets teatime is anytime if one patronises the chaiwallahs who pour milky brew into earthen cups. So also at Flury’s, the 1920s’ style Park Street tearoom famous for scones and fruit parfaits. But despite enticing options I feel obliged to revert to my hotel at tea o’clock because its owner also runs a tea plantation. Missing their treats would seem like irresponsible tourism.

The infusion of rare silver tips or maybe even silver needles hits me softly with a nirvana-like fragrance and, despite being basically an alien from outer space when it comes to tea-drinking, I’m open-minded enough to stare deep into the cup, and what looks like whisky stares back at me. But I’ve never quite tasted anything like it. I understand that it’s probably punishable by rigorous imprisonment to ask for milk or sugar, which would effectively kill its delicate aroma. This is tea. But not chai.

It has been grown in Kalimpong, east of Darjeeling, and the first flush has just reached Kolkata, where my enjoyment is heightened by the elegant tearoom of what feels like an estate bungalow. The ultra-extravagant Glenburn Penthouse has been designed to resemble an old-world plantation environment — except that it occupies the top floors of a high-rise around the corner from Chowringhee and Park Street. Instead of tea bushes, the view is of the Maidan with its wedding-cakey Victoria Memorial.

There’s a lot to be said about tea, the product that India is perhaps most famous for. A most curious aspect: Before the Britons kick-started the industry in the mid-1800s, the beverage was virtually unknown here — but, soon, chai turned into our national drink and the chaiwallah into a cultural institution emblematic of the land. However, Mahatma Gandhi believed it to be unhealthy (“Personally, I know of no virtue in tea. Moreover, the tea made in shops is boiled and, therefore, harmful,” he preached). He probably hadn’t caught on to the importance of antioxidants.

Purveyor of quality teas since 1859, the Glenburn Estate counts among those with the absolutely highest pedigree, so despite Mahatma-ji’s words of warnings, I sip to experience an uncommon poshness as the cup trembles daintily on the china saucer when I reach out to the tiered, Christmas tree-shaped serving tray full of home-baked cookies, bite-sized sandwiches and assorted savouries. The low astringency factor sets this brew apart from the run-of-the-mill teas and I happily down multiple cups. Connoisseurs, in fact, say a good tea is like champagne, to which no Old Monk needs to be added, making tea-sipping every bit as exciting as wining-dining-shining in Bordeaux.

Apparently, Glenburn harvests are eagerly awaited by these discerning connoisseurs who sign up for email alerts whenever a new batch is about to be dispatched and place orders online, as these teas are primarily sold through the estate’s website. Moonshine long leaf is harvested in early spring, the Assam-style golden tips comes in May, the white peony buds are harvested at the height of summer, or one can go for a Darjeeling second flush, or the green tea that is ready for consumption in August, and so on, turning the year into a calendar of teatimes.

My days are spent enjoying tea-soaked breakfasts on the tea terrace, taking in majestic views of Hooghly’s bridges, floating in the rooftop pool at sunsets with a teacup within reach, ending the day with fine-dining heritage meals of old Calcutta cookery — like river fish steamed with mustard paste in banana leaf — rounded off by the in-house teas. I start turning into a teaholic and am again reminded of Mahatma-ji’s words.

However, the convenient location, with Kolkata at my doorstep, compels me to explore the kaleidoscopic heart of the once grand town. I drink in the headiness of age-old “Calcutta” at the 1950s’ eastern European style Broadway beer hall (27A Ganesh Chandra Avenue), where one might expect Karl Marx to make a meteoric entrance at any moment to snap one’s tankard (₹235) away. I munch on Nahoum’s pizza puffs and fishy treats once I trace the tucked-away New Market bakery of 1902 vintage, while any auxiliary peckishness is cured by the kathi rolls, kachoris, puchkas, bhelpuris, jhaal muris, and other dubious but dependably tasty street snacks that beckon; or the classic hippie lassis sold at a stall around the corner from Blue Sky Café in Sudder Street. Eventually I settle down to lunch in some esteemed no-frills canteens such as the century-old Siddeshwari Ashram (Mirza Ghalib Street, near Janbazaar), whose chingri (₹210) is the biggest, juiciest prawn I’ve ever seen, practically lobster-sized; or the women-run Suruchi (89, Elliot Road), where the divine bhekti paturi (₹250) tastes truly motherly. I prefer conventional establishments to the new-fangled trendier Bengali bistros that attempt to fuse traditions and modernity.

Then I revert to my lodgings for more tea to take me higher. For dinner at the hotel, I order their curated “Park Street menu”, which is a tribute to the days when the street outside was India’s culinary hotspot. The starter is an interestingly robust soup with mushrooms and smoked pork while the main course, chicken à la Kiev, is a total trip with its revolutionary bomb-like construction. I wonder why this has fallen off menus. It’s a total blast. Like Kolkata is.



Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;

Email: zacnet@email.com

Published on October 04, 2019

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