I’ve always been a coffee drinker, yet after a week or so here in Sri Lanka – the world’s biggest exporter of tea – my tastes are changing. The coffee is nothing to write home about, but the tea is a different beverage…
In Kandy at the Devon bakery, I tried a cup of plain (meaning no milk) ginger tea. It arrived dark and with solid chunks of ginger nestling at the bottom. And together with a vegetable samosa, it was actually rather delicious.
Then en route to Nuwara Eliya, a town in the hill country, we stopped to admire the St. Clair waterfall and noticed a smart looking colonial building on the opposite side of the road. It was the St. Clair tearoom, and after a perilous dash across the busy road – both Sujan and Saman watching out for other vehicles – we went inside.
The place was set out as a bar, all wood and polish, a little like an English pub. Except it didn’t sell ales, but packets of the finest St. Clair tea. Then stepping outside again onto a neat green lawn with petit white tables, we sat as a waiter brought out individual slices of chocolate cake, followed by china cups of orange tea (known as BOP or Broken Orange Pekoe). Both cake and tea were sublime, each complimenting the other. We sipped and nibbled, feeling like an English lord and lady taking a well-earned break in their travels.
Afterwards, as we journeyed further, the hillsides rose around us, all neat rows of tea bushes, even curves and helixes. Apparently the tea tree, Camellia Sineasis, in its natural state can grow ten metres tall. Tea bushes in plantations however are pruned, the pickers plucking the two youngest leaves from each branch every other day and restricting the height of the bushes to around one metre. The quality of the tea depends upon the altitude at which it is grown. Tea bushes above 1200 metres (high grown) produce the finest teas best drunk without milk. Whereas tea below 600 metres (low grown) is much stronger, and middle-grown tea tastes somewhere in-between.
The next day, we went on a tour around the Pedro tea factory at Lover’s Leap, to see how the plucked tea leaves were manufactured into drinkable tea. After donning green aprons and promising not to take any photos, a short lady in a red sari (who ironically wasn’t wearing an apron) led us around the factory. First, past the dryers – long troughs into which the leaves are deposited and “withered” by hot air. Then onto large circular machines that crush and “ferment” the leaves, and then to an oven in which they are baked (to a dark brown and not burnt to black).
All the equipment was old. None of it was in use. Nobody working, no leaves being processed. The fact that the day before had been Sunday meant there were no freshly plucked leaves to put in. Anyway, it was rumoured the woman did all the work while the men drank at the pub. And not tea, but something stronger.
The lady led us upstairs to where the tea was filtered for stalks, then sorted into grades. There are four grades: orange pekoe (OP) made from whole young leaves, making delicate, subtle tea; broken orange pekoe (BOP), or broken young leaves, the same as the orange tea we’d drunk at St. Clair’s; BOFP, or fannings, broken down further; and finally dust, the remaining residue.
After removing our aprons outside, we filed into the tea restaurant for our free cuppa. It was orange again, but without chocolate cake, not as flavoursome as at St. Clair’s. Overall, we were a little disappointed by our visit. We’d not seen anything actually working, nor had we walked among the tea bushes seeing the leaves being plucked.
Never mind, we would be returning to the hill country. There was always the Dambotenue tea factory (founded by Sir Thomas Lipton) or the one at Uva Halpewalfe.
Anyone fancy a brew?