22 September 2010

Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darjeeling

One of the countless introductions I've had since I moved to New York is to The Prisoner, a 1960s British TV series in which the main character, a former secret agent, is abducted after resigning from his job. He is held captive in a surreal village, given a number as identification, and constantly tormented and plied for information from an authoritative figure called Number Two.

My first roommate here- a design, music and general pop-culture savant- was the one who showed it to me. I remember thinking the opening sequence was cool, but quickly started to crack up throughout the hour-long episode. Everyone in village was dressed in bizarre, bright stripes, twirling big umbrellas while speaking in creepy aphorisms, and just seemed to be taking themselves so seriously. The prisoner himself (referred to as Number Six) was the worst offender, kicking, barking or snarling at every village accoutrement and inhabitant. There was one scene in which Number Six, invited for a chat with Number Two, smashes down a perfectly nice cup of tea that's been prepared for him without even taking a sip (I can't seem to find the clip, but trust me, it is hilarious).

I know my old roommate was annoyed at my failure to immediately recognize The Prisoner's brilliance. But after a few more episodes, I was hooked- and then I was the one shooting dark glares anyone who dared speak while watching. Perhaps my initial response was immaturity, or simply not enough exposure to the soul-crushing world of corporate employment; regardless, it's time now, over 10 years later, to pay due homage.

Number Six, asked whether he wants "Indian or Chinese" tea for his angry little party, chooses Indian. So what better way to offer tribute than with a tasting of such a black tea, steeped in the storied British tradition of domination?

Darjeeling is one of the most beloved Indian teas. In the mid-1800s, the English established tea gardens in this remote, elevated region of western Bengal; by the end of that century, these had expanded into plantations and tea processing centers. And as Darjeeling leaves are processed from different pickings (or flushes) throughout the season, the distinct types make for an intriguing side-by-side comparison.

I brewed up both, and began with the first flush (bottom right). This is an early spring tea, with a delicate, slightly astringent, floral taste. The second flush (upper left), which is harvested from the later growth on the bushes, has a fuller flavor, with lingering muscatel notes. I much preferred its more developed aroma and roundness.

You can even see the difference in the leaves: the first flush (left) maintain a touch of green color, while the second flush (right) appears completely oxidized.

But taste is a strange beast. Try both, and see which you prefer. Regardless, there's no need to smash any cups afterward- unless you're feeling particularly oppressed.