by Phil on November 29th, 2013
Canton Tea Club Week 61: Attabarrie Special Tippy
The King, the Pond, its Orchard and his Lover
What’s in a name?
This week’s tea comes from Attabarrie, a tea garden near Sibsagar in Assam, on the south bank of the great Brahmaputra River. The name goes back to the time of the Ahom (Assam) Kings in the 15th and 16th centuries. The site of the Attabarrie factory is next to a large pond or small lake, dug during the reign of king Sukhampha (1552-1603). Following the advice of his guru, the king asked for the area round the pond to be planted with gum trees, and the gum was then used at the royal palace in the making of jewellery. The name Attabarrie is from Atha Bari, which means ‘Gum Orchard’.
King Sukhampha seems to have been a bit of a local legend. He was known as Khora Raja, or Lame King, “owing to having hurt his foot while out hunting elephants”. Running alongside the Athabari pond is Hari Para Road, which refers to a local girl of lower caste whom the king used to visit secretly. The story is told that she was smuggled in to meet the king in a large wooden box.
Attabarrie is now one of the finest gardens in Assam. It is beautifully laid out and maintained, with perfectly level carpets of bushes. Attabarrie is renowned for its ‘orthodox’ rolled leaf, with reddish-orange tips. This week’s Tea Club tea was specially made to maximise the amount of golden tips, which come from the small unopened tea buds; it is only made in tiny quantities each year, during the peak quality period in May and June.
I tasted this tea during a visit to the garden in 2011, and it has been a favourite since then. It was shown to me by Kenal Shekhawat, the garden manager, who takes an enormous pride in everything he does. Tea of this type accounts for only a tiny proportion of the annual crop, less than 1%, but for a garden manager it is the pinnacle of the season. Kenal has won awards for this tea, and it is highly sought after every year.
My apologies to those reading this who don’t have a sample. For those who do, the grade is SFTGFOP1 – Special Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe 1. If you are familiar with top quality Assam teas you will recognise the style and the high quantity of tips, but also that the tips are quite fat and slightly reddish in colour. This is a characteristic of the particular bush varieties selected when making this tea.
All Assam teas need a long infusion time, and this one especially so. I would allow it at least five minutes, and it’s better in a pot than a gaiwan. It is quite light for an Assam, and the normal dry malty character is balanced by a touch of sweetness. It is a bit like allowing a digestive biscuit to melt in your mouth.
Please let me know what you make of this tea. I would like to pass some comments back to Kenal.
Next week we have another Assam, from just down the road. The garden name is Itakhooli, which means ‘brick outhouse’. OK, not quite as romantic, but the tea has its own story to tell.
I like this tea and it is quite different from any Assam teas I have tried before. I had always seen Assam tea as a strong malty flavoured brew, best drunk with milk, and a good base for Chai - with plenty of milk, sugar and spices.
But this one seems better drunk black - am I right Phil?
You don't really mention whether you drink it black or white.
It's a new experience for me to drink classic Indian teas black (apart from Darjeeling) and to appreciate the more subtle flavours.
In Ostfriesland, a part of northern Germany, they have a custom of drinking fine quality 'broken leaf' Assam with cream and sugar. The tea is brewed very strong, a rock of brown sugar is placed in the cup and cream slowly poured over the surface, a bit like a liqueur coffee. It's a different kind of tea drinking experience. The best tea estates make tea specifically for this market.
Personally I would drink this tea black, because it is very refined for an Assam, but I am very relaxed about people adding milk if that is something they enjoy. I would also draw a distinction between tasting tea and drinking tea - tasting is more about focus, discernment and analysis and drinking is much more about enjoyment.