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Tea trail

Author: admin

Belgium-based tea connoisseur Neetu Sarin on her karmic tryst with the beverage

For Neetu Sarin, the best part about falling sick as a child was getting to drink tea. She had seen elders in her family drinking tea as a daily ritual and secretly wanted it but the only time she enjoyed the privilege was when she was sick. “My mother would mix tea with milk, add some spices, boil it and make me drink that. I absolutely loved it and couldn’t wait to grow up and drink tea!”

Fascinated by the beverage, Sarin ventured into the business of teas years later, but it held a very different meaning for her. “I consider it a karmic connection. I believe tea has drawn me into it. Tea has a mind of its own; it made the plan and I followed it,” says the 60 year-old, Belgium-based tea aficionado.

Sarin was on a business trip to India recently, when we met her at her Bandra residence. Her drawing room was stocked with teas of different flavours, neatly arranged in a row of cabinets. The room was decorated with various types of tea pots and chests.

“Tea makes me happy and gives me a sense of satisfaction. I just love its essence. From the humble chai at roadside stalls to a luxury drink served at sophisticated events, its versatility fascinates me no end.” For Sarin, teatime is her break time, her comfort zone. “What I enjoy most is the experience of drinking tea served in a special teapot and cup. I find it very soothing.”

Born in New Delhi, Sarin was raised in Mumbai, where she attended Podar College of Commerce. After marriage in 1981, she moved to Belgium, thanks to her husband’s job. Being a coffee-drinking country, tea wasn’t easily available there and she yearned for it. “The tea available in the cafes was served with a creamer that had a strange taste. So I would either drink tea black or add lemon to enhance the flavour.” Thus began her road to experimentation and she tried out some tea flavours with the help of a friend.

Sarin’s fascination for tea prompted her to join the Tea Board of India in 1982 as a freelancer for some years. Her job entailed promoting Indian teas with the help of sampling at food exhibitions in Belgium. It was there that she learnt about green tea and the French tradition of adding fruits and flowers. She began to experiment with blends and got people to sample them. Her close family and friends who visited her from India loved her blends and not only nicknamed her ‘chaiwali’ but placed orders for more—she happily met their demands.

Eight years later, in 2008, Sarin’s husband was transferred to Bengaluru for a brief period. “By then, green tea had entered the Indian market. I hunted for the right flavours and when my husband carried my tea blends to work, his colleagues appreciated those flavours.” That encouraged her to turn her tea passion into a profession.
Sarin read books and gathered information on the age-old culture, tradition and art of mixing teas. Finally, in 2011, she launched ‘Tea of Life’, a registered company that supplies flavoured teas with a price range varying between Rs 400 and Rs 700 per container. “I made the blends myself at home, and for packaging I hired a different set-up of people.”

Sarin took orders for corporate or personal gifting from a select group of people in India and visited her home country twice a year for distribution. Gradually, sales increased by word of mouth but she kept the scale of operation low to have total control over quality.

Blending teas is a way to learn and grow, says Sarin. She uses sencha green tea as the base and blends it with dried flowers, fruits, herbs, spices, tea bark, leaves, roots and other flavours. The raw material is sourced from Darjeeling, the Nilgiris and other tea plantations in India, and is also bought during travel expeditions.

“To date, I sit down every morning to do my tea tastings for newer flavours,” she reveals. Her favourite blends are Body And Soul (lemon grass and ginger), La Vie En Rose (rose petals), Casablanca Nights (mint and orange), Blue Jade (blueberries), Double Happiness (vanilla and chrysanthemum), Spice Route (Indian spices) and Mulled Tea (black smoked tea with spices put in mulled wine).

Looking back, the tea connoisseur compares her six-year affair with tea to the ‘tea philosophy’ that focuses on leading a quiet, simple and balanced life. Currently, she’s also taking classes in the Japanese tea ceremony called Chado. “It’s a special ceremony where matcha [powdered green tea] is prepared and served. This demonstrates tea etiquette and the art of serving tea.”

Tea rejuvenates and energises the body and calms the mind; Sarin recommends it for everyone, “especially the green tea variety that is fast gaining popularity. Today, even non tea-drinking countries, like Belgium, sell a wide variety of teas in supermarkets. There are tea cafes and tea rooms opening up in many places.”

Sarin is planning to foray into the Belgium market in the not-too-distant future. “I want to promote Indian teas in Belgium with the help of tea sampling, tea appreciation, tea discovery, tea-and-food pairing and other workshops.” She also has other plans up her sleeve such as “introducing more exciting stuff for tea lovers and launching a website” but she’s taking it one step at a time.

— Rachna Virdi

Did you know?

When Princess de Catherine of Braganza married British King Charles II, she was given a chest of tea leaves and the seven islands of Mumbai as a part of her dowry in marriage.

February 2018