The ultimate blend... The Ceylon Tea Trails

| November 29, 2010

Philip Hamilton-Grierson, Cox & Kings’ Marketing Director,  writes from a boutique hotel in Sri Lanka.

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Andrew Taylor’s very British name belies his predominantly Sri Lankan blood, although one of his forebears, James Taylor, was the Scotsman who introduced tea to Sri Lanka in 1867.

Andrew has worked in the tea industry in Sri Lanka all his life and for much of that time was a ‘planter’. That’s not to say that he actually planted the tea bushes himself, but he was a tea estate manager and for some years lived in the Castlereagh bungalow, from where I write. This is now one of four traditional bungalows in the southern highlands of central Sri Lanka, to the south west of Nuwara Eliya, that have been converted into luxury boutique hotels by the Relais & Chateaux accredited Ceylon Tea Trails.

Castlereagh has just five beautifully furnished rooms, all with a distinctly 1920s feel. The same spirit is carried onto the verandah, where meals are served by the friendliest staff while one overlooks the neatly kept garden, croquet lawn and beyond to the lake. The meals are delicious, with a mix of traditional Sri Lankan curries and traditional English dishes, and a proper tea is served in the afternoon, including cakes and scones. This is a glorious place to unwind or explore.

The area, 4,000 ft above sea level, is quite unlike the sweltering jungles, plantations and paddy fields of the rest of the island. It is cool and damp, with scenery that must have felt quite familiar to the likes of James Taylor and other Scottish tea pioneers such as Thomas Lipton. The steep-sided valley that leads up from the loch-like Castlereagh Reservoir is swathed in tea plantations. In all directions the bright green waist-high bushes form neatly trimmed, undulating rows.

One of the excursions on offer from the Ceylon Tea Trails bungalows is a visit to the nearby Norton Tea Factory in the inspirational company of Andrew Taylor. Even though he takes visitors around this factory most days, his enthusiasm for his subject is both obvious and infectious, and his knowledge is boundless. In many years of experiencing guided tours in many corners of the world, I can say that without doubt Andrew Taylor’s tea tour is the best of them all – by a margin.

Who knew that tea could be so fascinating? And explained by almost anyone else I doubt it would be. But with Andrew we followed the tea from the freshly picked green shoots all the way through the factory to the sacks ready for market and our small group were riveted and amused throughout.

The tea bushes are kept at waist height for ease of picking and each one is picked once every seven days, year round for four years until it is pruned back to recover its strength. Maintained in this way, the bushes can go on producing for hundreds of years. When you see the scale of the plantations you cannot believe that the small scattered army of pickers can possibly reach every bush once a week – but they do. The shoots that are picked for standard teas are just the top two or three leaves and the bud of the newest growth. Each picker is paid by weight and the quality of their pickings is regularly assessed to make sure that only the freshest leaves are sent for processing. The pickers were originally brought over by the British from southern India and today the ancestors of these ‘Plantation Tamils’ remain the workforce in all the plantations. The pickers themselves are almost exclusively women, whilst the men do the heavier work of pruning, manning the processing factories, chopping wood and, as Andrew put it, simply standing around and watching.

At the factory, the leaves are first wilted over fan-blown warm air for between two and a half hours and two hours and fifty minutes depending on the ambient temperature and humidity. As it turns out calculations such as these lie at the heart of the art of tea production because a few too many or too few minutes spent on the wilting or any of the subsequent processes can radically alter the final flavour. The wilting removes half of the moisture from the leaves, before they are rubbed, chopped, sifted, oven-dried (for exactly 21 minutes), strained and packed. But that sentence tells nothing of the sequence of whirring machines, busying workers and detailed explanations from Andrew that gripped us for the next two hours, before we finally emerged into the factory manager’s splendidly dated office (typewriter, no computer) for a lesson in tasting.

This was Andrew at his theatrical best as he showed us how to slurp the teas (it seems important to do this loudly, probably to ensure that you mix the tea with plenty of air), swill them around our mouths and spit them out, before discussing the tingling tongue-tip sensation, the ‘gumminess’, pungency, bitterness and other qualities of each brew amid a flurry of wagging fingers and other gesticulations. He was like the best schoolmaster you can imagine: passionate, knowledgeable, inspiring, gentle and amusing in almost equal measure.

Once it leaves the factory, the tea is transported by road to the tea auctions in Colombo where the representatives from the likes of Liptons, PG Tips, Dilmah and Taylors of Harrogate test the quality and then start the bidding. And thence to your English Breakfast Tea or the countless other blends in our stores.

Sri Lanka had revealed itself to be a wonderful travelling destination long before we headed for the highlands, but if you do plan a trip here the combined joys of a stay in one of the Ceylon Tea Trails bungalows and a visit to the tea factory with Andrew Taylor will prove worth the journey alone.

View Cox & Kings' holidays to Sri Lanka.

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