Sri Lanka: Enraptured with the perfect tea

By Kevin Pilley

My guru smacked his lips appreciatively ... but he didn't search for a spittoon. An almost Buddhist-like calm suffused his face and he swooned as he swilled, blissfully savouring the anti-oxidants.

"The loose leaf produces an excellent rounded intenseness," he intoned. "Dimbulla takes milk well. And is perfectly balanced to be quaffed all day. But to be truly ecstatic it must be brewed at exactly 80C and not be allowed to stand for more than two minutes four seconds. Of course I am also a great fan of Green Kandyan Blooms."

He looked at his dry-mouthed acolyte in a very learned-but-who-isn't sort of way. "It is made from one bud and one leaf only. Plucked in the early hours of morning at high elevation. It is the Rolls Royce of Ceylon teas."

He drank from another cup and smiled serenely. "Unmistakably Kandy FBOP. A good red colour and lingering malty taste. But my preference with scones is the classic black wiry Ruhuna."

Tea is thought to have been discovered by the Chinese emperor Sheng Nung 5000 years ago when some leaves fell into a cup of water. It began as a medicine and grew into a social beverage.

Thanks to that venerable tradition, Sri Lanka now produces over 280 million kilograms of tea every year from six tea districts. Harvested all year, Sri Lankan tea is exported to over 50 countries and employs 30,000 workers.

The best place to taste tea and get a taste of Sri Lanka is up in the tea fields of Nuwara Eliya, a four-hour drive from the capital Colombo.

En route you see white-shirted schoolchildren, ladies under parasols and roadside orange-coconut stalls. You pass waterfalls like St Clair and Devon, the elephant orphanage and bathing site at Pinnawala, and the Kelani Ganga river where Sir David Lean filmed the The Bridge On The River Kwai.

You see arrack toddy collectors shinning up coconut trees. You are watched by toque monkeys and brown-capped babblers. You cross rivers and see river monitors and enormous black bats hanging from trees . You smell wild tobacco and the Princess of the Night flowers. You drive under conical Bunabunya trees. Your senses overload.

And then you reach 2000m above sea level and suddenly on all sides are the tea plantations where the pluckers work the steep terraces picking the top two leaves of every bush for 50c a day. You learn from your driver that the leaves are picked every 20 days and dried for a fortnight and then rolled.

Then you suddenly arrive at the mock Tudor-style Scots Club, now called the St Andrews Hotel, in Nuwara Elija, and an old man in a claret waiter's jacket asks you to guess how old his balls are. Eh?

It turns out the snooker table is 118 years and its ivory balls are only slightly younger. The snooker room used to be a dance hall. Here tea and coffee planters worked and played.

A Scotsman, James Taylor, first planted tea in the area in 1867. Some of the early equipment is still to be seen. Kandy, the lakeside second city, has a tea museum but Nawara is one big museum of tea and colonialism.

It is one of the most atmospheric hotels imaginable. It represents what Sri Lanka (Sanskrit for resplendent land) stood for before the tsunami and the on-off Tamil civil war affected people's opinions and put them off this wonderful country. Sinhalese hospitality is as warm in the hill stations as it is down on the beaches. The cooking is good everywhere. As well as milk rice with scraped jaggery, lentil dhaal and string hoppers (noodles), the menu in The Old Course Restaurant of the St Andrews Hotel includes steak and kidney pie. Hot water bottles are left in your bed.

Down the road is a racecourse and a golf club with fireplaces in the men's locker room. Traditions are preserved despite independence being granted 60 years ago. The British influence remains.

Golf is part of Sri Lanka's new tourism drive. You can get seaplane connections between all the courses. After Royal Calcutta, Royal Colombo is the oldest golf club outside Britain. Kandy has the more modern but no less scenic Victoria Golf and Country Club. Travelling from course to course is as good a way as any to see the old Ceylon and the new Sri Lanka.

South Sri Lanka was decimated by the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004. Over 100,000 people lost their lives. At Peralya, two carriages remain of the Queen of the Sea train swamped by the tidal wave, killing 1000 people on their way back from market. The Japanese Government donated a giant memorial statue.

Sri Lanka is rebuilding itself. It is beginning to pick itself up to get back to where it once was.

You sense this when everyone is a tea connoisseur and wants to talk about The Leaf That Cheers The Globe. Tea factories give tastings. Hotels provide impromptu lessons. All to educate your palette and make you smile when you provenance your cuppa.

"Sri Lankan tea liquor is the cleanest in the world regarding pesticide residuals," said my guru proudly.

"But of course the best tea is brewed in a gold pot."

I chortled. My teacher looked at me with concern, suspecting the worst. "You aren't a tea bag man, are you?" he asked with disgust.

FURTHER INFORMATION:
For information on touring Sri Lanka see www.srilankantourism.org.

WHERE TO STAY:
Earl's Regency in Kandy is at www.aitkenspencehotels.com.

St Andrews Hotel in Nuwara Eliya and Lighthouse Hotel and Spa Galle are both at www.jetwing.com.

- NZ Herald

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