Garden Portrait: Singell
With almost 3 decades of annual visits to the Darjeeling region Kevin has naturally developed a list of his favourite gardens. Not only that he knows these gardens well enough to have tuned in to which sections of those gardens give his favourite teas. One tea that has been showing up in the Camellia Sinensis catalogue every year for many years is the First Flush from Singell. Let’s take a closer look at the garden behind this tea.
Just a few km along Hill Cart Road, after the town of Kurseong in the District of Darjeeling, is the gate to the Singell tea Garden. Below the road, as with most tea gardens of the region, Singell’s tea fields cover the side of a steep Himalayan valley from 1000m in the valley floor right up to just over 1500m. This garden uses a biodynamic style of organic cultivation in all 554 hectares of its tea fields. This is also a certified Fairtrade garden with various social programs and a strong focus on the well-being of the 500 or so workers that are employed here. Walking around the garden the whole place has a great feeling, which isn’t always the case in every garden. The current Singell tea factory, where the team convert green leaf from the field into the finished tea we enjoy at home, was originally built in the 1930 and has been renovated many times over the years including their most recent improvements to their tasting room.
Singell was planted in 1860 in the very early days of the region’s development. The British in India were looking for areas to grow tea and it had just been discovered that planting the seeds that they had acquired from China up in the Himalayan soil and growing conditions was a recipe for some very magic results. Despite the slow growth up in the foothills, the teas were bursting with aromatics that picked up much higher prices at auction. Today most of the Singell garden is still covered in these classic seed-grown, deep-rooted plants and some from this very early planting. Though we call them ‘Classic’ plants the locals refer to them proudly as the ‘China’ plants. Despite dwindling yields from these original sections, as the plants age, the management of this garden have decided to retain the integrity of these 160-year-old fields. These rare ‘Heritage’ sections often have large spaces where a number of the plants have reached the end of their natural life and been removed. Where most gardens would plant young tea plants in their place, a practice called ‘infilling’, this ‘dilutes’ the authenticity of the finished tea when the section is plucked and processed. In preparation for the future Singell have also created a ‘seed bari’ where a few hundred plants have been allowed to grow unpruned and produce seeds for future generations.
So next time you are sipping on the Darjeeling Singell First Flush think of these classic old ‘Heritage’ plants, the original plantings that gave Darjeeling its reputation as the ‘Champagne of Black Teas’
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