“You can find a diamond in a coal mine,” beams the genial Rajeev Mittal of Mittal Tea House, Lodi Colony, New Delhi”just the way you can discover white tea on a regular bush.” White tea – it’s not really white, but very pale green and its leaves are long and pointed – is, quite simply, the most expensive tea in the world. Rajeev Mittal, whose teas travel to Japan and Western Europe, probably sells 100 kgs of white tea a year, compared to 20 tons of regular (black and green) tea. It is also a function of the price: Rs 10,000 for a kilogram and Rs 2,500 for white tea fannings (or dust: the lowest grade in the business; tea bags are filled with fannings, but not, let it be said, of white tea!)
So what exactly is white tea? At its simplest, it is the most perfectly formed leaves and buds of all in a single bush. Because they are the best that nature has to offer, they are accorded the finest treatment. Therefore, they are not fermented or steamed the way other leaves are, but left to dry carefully in the shade (the sun would shrivel and blacken them while starting the fermentation process).
Drink a cup of white tea and you’ll experience a delicate flavour and an exceptional aroma. Technically speaking, you can derive white tea from any of India’s tea-producing areas – Assam, Darjeeling or Nilgiris, but because Darjeeling has the most perfect factors for Camelia Senesis, white tea from Darjeeling is considered the most prestigious of all. East-facing slopes, an altitude of 6,500 feet above sea level and an abundance of skilled labour is the trick that Nature has up its sleeve.
White tea, being a process, is not unique to India. White tea comes from China too; the variety you prefer would depend on personal preference, informs Mittal. “There is nothing inherently better in either variety, just as there’s nothing inherently better in first flush or second flush.” The two pickings are two months apart from each other, and all tea connoisseurs seem to be able to tell the difference instantly.
Isn’t Rs 10,000 a bit steep for a kilogram of tea? Mittal smiles pityingly. “The teas that go from India to the Emperor of Japan and to Buckingham Palace cost Rs 25,000, so Rs 10,000 is really not a lot.”