- Life Style
High tea in Sri Lanka
by Joan Scobey
What looks like a flock of white moths blanketing a green hillside is a battalion of tea-picking women with white bags on their backs. Sri Lanka's 300,000 tea pickers are primarily women. They harvest tea leaves year round, at $2 a day (plus housing, education and other benefits). Tea factories that dot the hills process their bounty 24/7.
There are 500,000 tea acres in Sri Lanka, but tea growers claim that the highlands around Nuwara Eliya produce the best. It has to do with altitude, which affects taste and color. The higher the elevation, the lighter the color and the more refined and delicate the flavor. Low-grown tea has deep tone and color; tea grown at 2,000-3,000 feet is a bit lighter, but still full-bodied and pungent; at 5,000 feet and higher it has bright, beautiful color and a more delicate taste.
Wherever they are grown, all tea - black tea, green tea, oolong - comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. A Chinese shrub, it made its way to Sri Lanka via India and its northeast region of Assam.
Today tea represents a quarter of all of Sri Lanka's exports. Sri Lanka is the third-largest tea producer, after China and India, but its quality makes it the largest exporter, with Kenya. For the finest Ceylon tea, processing is like a traditional dance that starts with very precise picking: Two leaves and a bud. The newly plucked leaves are immediately withered, or partially air-dried; rolled, or crushed, to start fermentation; fired to get the final brown-black leaf; and then graded by size. The broken leaves in orange and flowery pekoes make the prized, more delicate drink; tea dust and small fannings go into tea bags for full-body flavor. The art of tea making comes in knowing when to stop the fermentation of black tea; green tea isn't fermented at all. Factory tours at many area tea estates take you through the process.
Today, a quiet tea revolution is under way in Sri Lanka, led by Merrill Fernando, visionary founder of MJF Group, which produces Dilmah tea. As a David to the multinational tea corporations, Fernando is championing "real" tea. By this he means 100 percent Ceylon tea made the orthodox way.
"CTC is a shortcut to tea," explained Dilhan Fernando, Dilmah's marketing director, "for it sacrifices the soul of tea, losing character, body, subtle variations ... for quick color and the appearance of tea after a minute of brewing."
In contrast to the quick-brew blends, Dilmah sells teas that are picked, packed and branded where they are grown, processed traditionally and marketed as Single Origin Tea, unblended, 100 percent pure Ceylon. Fernando doesn't have a problem with tea bags, just the tea in them; in fact, he packages many Dilmah teas in foil packets. Dilmah tea is sold in 95 countries, and is about to make its debut in the United States. Until then, it's available online at www.dilmahtea.com.
Every April, when the $1,000-purse Governor's Cup headlines the horse races at the country's only operating racetrack, a Sri Lankan version of Ascot takes over the town. Grandstand invitations note "Ascot attire," white-clothed stewards serve champagne, a jazz band tootles away and a fashion show precedes the big race. Add the mid-April Sri Lankan New Year's, and no one has more fun than the party-loving Sri Lankans. Never mind that cows graze in the center of the charmingly dilapidated course, the starting gate is often hidden by the fairgrounds, and only part of the track is visible.
One of the most delightful ways to enjoy the region is a stay at the newly opened Tea Trails, a quartet of former British tea estate managers' homes. Turned into luxury lodges, they have 20 colonial-era suites among them. On or near a man-made lake in the tea hills an hour out of Nuwara Eliya, they are superbly situated for walking, hiking, biking, birding, canoeing, kayaking and excursions to the region's sights, including, of course, its tea factories. It's a bit of Raj lifestyle with butler service.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Tea Trails. Double-room rates to April 30 start at $165 per person, and include all meals, cream tea, drinks, taxes, laundry, butler service and guided walks. Phone (94) 11-230-3888, fax (94) 11-230-3999, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, Web site www.teatrails.com.
The Tea Factory, Kandapola. Doubles from $140. Phone (94) 52-222-9600, fax (94) 52-222-9606, e-mail email@example.com, Web site www.aitkenspencehotels.com.
St Andrews Hotel, 10 St. Andrew's Dr., Nuwara Eliya. A Tudor-style colonial mansion with gardens and antique furnishings that is long on nostalgia and short on amenities. Doubles from $71; phone (94) 52-222-3031, fax (94) 52-222-3153; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site www.jetwing.net.
The new Emirates route between JFK and Dubai, connecting to SriLankan Airlines, is the best and shortest route from the East Coast. From other parts of the country, connections are commonly via London or Asia.
Driver guides are reasonable and reliable, and can be arranged by a reputable tour operation, such as Jetwing Travels, www.jetwingtravels.com. You definitely don't want to drive yourself in Sri Lanka's chaotic traffic.
© Copley News Service