Alliance Francaise de Madras made my evening today. There was a tea tasting, appreciation and awareness enhancing session directed by the management and experts associated with AvonGrove Tea. It was highly coincidental to find such an event scheduled the day after I was seriously pondering over the state of fine tea drinking in Madras. Lest you assume that I am a connoisseur of fine tea, let me rest all such eyebrow-raising notions. I enjoy drinking tea (without milk. Somehow the combination of tea and milk jars on my tongue) and own a special stoneware tea set which I employ for the ceremony of brewing and drinking my favourite teas, although it has been a while since I did that. Before I get to the interesting part of the evening, let me describe what lead to this rendezvous and tea tasting event itself.
It was just yesterday when I seriously thought of purchasing fine tea leaves (CTC is simply not to my taste) and blending them to various flavours. I had some ideas of various blends and even checked with my mother for the local Tamil names of some of the flowers that I would need to buy. All I needed was a tea leaf supplier. I needed the Chinese variety and preferably the green ones as I felt that that would help serve as a good base for my recipes. Oolong was also acceptable. Something about black tea made me feel that it was best left alone without blending other things in it. I shall share the recipes once I have them winning the approval of some of my friends.
Today I woke up to read an advt. about an event at the AF for tasting tea. They also announced the formation of a club which would engage in tasting various families of foods and beverages (I am told that cheese, wines and chocolates are on the cards). There is something about such promises that tickles me into believing them! I have often believed that the best work is done at the expense of individual energy. Many a time I have found groups withering to a pair or two of persons with a genuine interest in wanting to keep the leitmotiv of the group going true and strong, but suffering death by natural causes. Undoubtedly, once I went there, my hopes were raised (Mr. C seems to be quite a capable person). I was attracted more to the opportunity to taste tea as well as connect with some folks in the tea-world to better understand the prospect of starting and running a tea club and (inshallah) a tea bar in Madras (please don’t insist on my calling it Chennai). I needed to understand the dynamics of the entire process as well as get a feel of how Madras responds to fine tea drinking.
I reached there when only a handful of ladies (can they ever be just a handful!?) had assembled to discuss someone and some things which I ignored with a clueless smile. They knew me not and such smiles work well in the midst of such an audience which is more than eager to ignore the newcomer. One thing that pleased my heart was the pleasant tone and the ladies carried themselves rather finely.
After some amateurish attempt at arranging the tea leaves (CTC was also up for presentation) and crockery, we were assured that things would commence in a manner which all of us looked forward to. I received, by a delightful stroke of luck, a suggestion to sit next to a fine lady whom I shall call GD. She turned out to be someone everyone seemed to know but that was irrelevant when juxtaposed with the effortlessness with which she spoke on a few topics with me. I have always been weak-kneed (or, as the Americans brashly say, sucker) for good conversation and she provided me a good amount, thank you.
Anand Kanoria brought a good measure of his enthusiasm to the presentation and occasionally took assistance from Amber Subba (garden manager) and Mr. Kidwai (of Carritt Moran & Co., I think). I would have preferred that he had prepared the presentation better rather than flip every slide with a “I won’t be going into the details of this, but feel free to ask me questions”. I felt that it was slightly rushed perhaps due to the delay that was already introduced or due to an undercurrent of low expectation from the audience to find anything of interest in those slides. For those who are interested in the process of tea manufacturing and Darjeeling Tea per se, I have the following references to offer:
I was definitely interested in the tea manufacturing process though I was aware of most of the steps that are involved. I was introduced to tea manufacturing when I was about 8 years old and shooting arrows in the misty slopes of Darjeeling. I remember buying and reading Hulk then. Most kids back then thought that green skinned superheroes were silly and nothing could beat Chacha Chaudhary and Sabu, or Phantom or Bahadur. I can safely laugh at all of them now!
I would have enjoyed it more had Anand and Mr. Kidwai provided more details. I was interested in knowing how the garden manager knew that the time was right or soon will be right for plucking (it seems, that the Autumnal could be figured out by the slightly xanthous tint of the fish-leaves (I think that is what they call the typical representation of tea leaves that one sees – 2 tender leaves with a bud in between)) and in other technical details of the manufacturing process. Polyphenols and enzymatic reactions could wait, though there was surely a lot to understand in the manufacturing process itself (and ponder over what could be done at various stages to produce something neo-tea-like. As in, consider the option of introducing Jasmine in the firing stage. How would the quality of tea change?). That didn’t happen and we proceeded to tasting tea. Mr. Kidwai (and he has quite a sweet smile) let us enjoy the tea while he explained the various adjectives one could use when describing tea. “Malty” would be when your tea tasted like Bournvita! and “moldy” when you really are tasting something you shouldn’t!
Mr. Kidwai gave us some statistics about the tea manufacturing process, the proportion of Darjeeling tea to CTC to orthodox tea and some more. It all went on well till a few of us gathered to discuss the state of fine dining (eating and/or drinking) in Madras. M of Maison des Gourmets felt that Madras was the last place one should even consider experimenting with (in the context of food). I wasn’t surprised to find myself agree with him. Nevertheless, I soon saw where we were making a mistake.
People from Madras consider eating a chore and it would be next to impossible to convince them that something like fine dining is legitimate. For some reason I understand their confusion around why one should pay 650 for a dinner of kebabs (as was recently organised at the Pergola) when one could get good kebabs and grills at BBQ-Nation for less, and more kebabs at another joint for still less and eventually for nearly nothing when one can prepare them at home (these are times I regret being able to cook my own dinners. Folks use that as an excuse to dissuade me from going out)! I agree with the kebab case as the spread was nothing worth dying for, but there are places which provide food that is rare and very creative. And that is what brings me to my theory of food and fine dining in India. All from the leaves in the cup!
In India, we now eat to get on with our day. We eat to be able to honestly tick it off our list of activities for the day. I have seen zealous friends prepare a to-do list for a day and elaborately plan every task on that sheet but summarise all of eating in one of two words: “Lunch” or “Dinner”. Coffee and tea are considered less confusing than “break”. I am sure that this is the case with a lot of places in the world (perhaps not Europe!). As long as eating is a chore, fine dining is an extravagance.
But that was not how it was in India. Lucknow, for example, was known for being very learned in the biryani and kebabs that it produced. The people on the street who prepared food over large pans knew how to make mutton melt in your mouth (mutton never enters my mouth and hence, it has to be your mouth where all the melting will happen). Another gent I met in the evening recalls a person in Lucknow who could tell from the taste of curd as to how long it had been since it was set and where the milk came from (as in, cow or buffalo and not Ahmad’s cows or Makhrand’s buffaloes). People in Madras were very particular about the coffee that they drank (my mom’s coffee was quite in demand) until Bru came along and made coffee drinking a chore, or as another seller puts it “Sip, lick, ummm”. Even today many of my relatives will only have filter coffee and that too P-berry (or is it Peaberry?). We would have avial made in coconut oil and folks in Kerala cannot imagine chips made in any other oil. My mother never made vadai in Canola oil or the other “tchah!” varieties. I never allowed one-meal old morkozhambu anywhere near my plate. The quality of jaggery mattered a lot for the “paagu” (something like a treacle) that was made at home. Some folks even insisted on using water drawn from a well for their cooking. All these are examples of discerning gourmands in recent years. Several decades ago, we had tonnes of examples where every facet of a meal was carefully prepared.
What is it that went wrong, then? My bet is on the nuclearisation of families and accepting anything to sustain the driving ambitions of India Rising. We were raised to believe that being particular about anything other than our studies was wasteful and unacceptable. Food was meant to be eaten and quick! so that we could get on with our studies or extra-curricular activities. There was this one story which is etched deep in my mind. In a gurukula, a very earnest student was fed food without salt (I like my pongal that way). He never complained as he was always studying and never noticed this. One day, after several years, he suddenly stopped eating and exclaimed, “This dish has no salt.” His master informed him that it was time for him to leave as his education was over and he no longer considered it the most important thing. That story always rang loud in my mind if I ever had to complain about the quality of food (I still did). There was of course the daily story that had a similar effect – with most of India not having enough to even eat for one meal, the very thought of fine dining was flayed with the guilt-whip cracking near us. Thus, the need to understand, appreciate and be creative about food was considered something that a housewife with lots of time at her disposal should do. It would be better if she could do that and help the kids with their homework. Or better still, just make something for dinner and help the kids with their homework. In middle class families with only one earning member, eating out (for a family of four) was something that could be done subject to budgetary constraints.
What India and Madras need is a gradual and carefully planned education about the goodness of eating well and fine dining. Why eat the same Dal Makhani on every outing when you could try some nice red bean couscous with bell peppers maybe at one third the periodicity? I think people need to be convinced to slow down, savour good food and be lured into consuming foods which bring out the best in whatever has gone into making them. Not that Dal Makhani is bad, but do you know how it really should be? Do you know what really makes it snappy? Is that topping of cream, merely design? What kind of beans, introduced in which order make the dish better (e.g. Urad too early can ruin the taste by bringing in the slime factor)? Do you think that once a person is made aware of this, and is then fed the perfect Dal Makhani, s/he would want to return to Pappu Dhaba’s Dal Makhani? We are raising standards here, but that is the only way to go forward.
South India has been very exacting about dance and music. The tradition and schools of dance helped ensure that the strictest standards were adhered to. We have schools of sculpture and architecture but no institution of fine food. Ayurveda treats food as a medicine and Vatsyayana treats it as a decorative element in foreplay or part of the duties as a member of the family. Food doesn’t seem to be treated as a wonderful uncut gem which one can polish and split into a beautiful ornament of satisfying beauty. Good food is at once orgasmic and Zen-like. Preparing it is verily meditation. Blessed are those who have experienced all of this.
Fine dining is an end to a very long and patient wait for people to realise the truth often achieved by exposing themselves, repeatedly, to whatever represents that truth. It cannot be wished into a society nor can it be forced. The worst thing to do is to introduce it at a very heavy price and then wonder why people lack taste and class. Why would I care for a Bose speaker if all I want to do is to listen to a T-Series tape while I sing along? Make me care, and I will walk your path.
I think it is wrong to assume that India does not have the taste or class to accommodate Darjeeling tea or chaji (Japanese tea ceremonies). I have personally, one person at a time, converted alu-jeera lovers to appreciate delicacies made of corn and mushroom (while making them realise why that alu-jeera was not good – hint: too much turmeric) with a dash of rosemary. It is a matter of evolving taste, and rushing it up can be detrimental to the very core of fine dining. The slightest financial setback will convince people that the first thing to cut out is this pointless eating that people call “fine dining”. It needs to seep into the fibres of human hunger and not be merely an alternative. I think it is possible, but requires an extremely creative soul with tremendous amounts of patience. And in India, pricing it right helps.
It was, in summary, a very splendid way to spend an evening. I met a couple of nice people from the US consulate. It was entertaining and fit well into my oft-conceived but hardly-ever-realised notion of how an evening should be spent. Wonderfully delightful conversations (thank you Ms. GD), discussions about food, markets and tastes (thank you M and PS), fine tea, talk about fine tea and work life (I envy BD for having a job which takes him to different places like Romania and now India for short spaces of 2-3 years) and learning more about the world of tea and tea manufacturing (thank you Anand, Mr. Kidwai and Subba). Frankly, one of the best evening I have had in a very long time. Thank you Mr. C of AF for organising this.