In the highlands of the 'teardrop island', Helen Anderson follows a perfect brew on its journey from field to fine china cup.
Rain, gentle as the Buddha's gaze, falls on the tea gardens of Ceylon.
At midnight, a tea-factory manager wakes in Bogawantalawa and checks the weather. He brews the first of several cups of his finest, this one to help him focus on the most important decision of the day - the precise length of time to allow the oxidising of today's crop of tea. If the weather is dry and temperate, he might set the oxidising time at two hours and 40 minutes. Today will be wet and cool, so he sets the time at two hours and 50 minutes. There is no room for error.
Seven hours later, there's a gentle knock on my door and Janaka the butler delivers bed tea: a wooden tray lined with a white paper doily and carrying a fine white china cup and saucer, a six-cup pot of BOP No. 14 (broken orange pekoe), perfectly brewed and strained, jugs of hot and cold milk, and a bowl of large-grain white sugar.
By the time I've sipped two cups in my pyjamas, the tea pluckers have started work on the terraces surrounding Tientsin, the 1888 tea-planter's bungalow in which I've woken in a four-poster bed. In a job that requires dexterity and stamina, the pluckers - all women wrapped in saris - fill sacks with leafy tips, each of which must be precisely two leaves and a bud.
Every day begins this way at Ceylon Tea Trails in the central highlands of Sri Lanka. Owned by the Dilmah tea company, the venture comprises four historic bungalows on working tea estates linked by walking trails and each staffed by a team of butlers and chefs. This is one of the finest of a clutch of high-end boutique travelling experiences in the "teardrop island", combining the nation's two most important revenue sources: tea and tourism.
Sri Lanka slipped off the map for many travellers during the brutal 30-year civil war between Tamil separatists and the Sinhalese regime, though foreigners were never targeted. Hostilities ended in May 2009 and travellers are returning to witness a nation in recovery and to enjoy the island's astonishing beauty and diversity.
With a land mass about the size of Tasmania, it has 5000 wild elephants, the well-preserved ruins of ancient cities, jungles, dry forest, sapphires, highland tea estates, beaches, a complex history, spicy cuisine and thousands of stories. Most of the new tourist ventures are boutique in scale and high in style, funded by private investment and staffed by highly skilled Sri Lankans.
An unmissable part of the Tea Trails experience is a tour and tasting at Norwood tea factory, not far from one of the bungalows. The first sacks filled with the morning's harvest are arriving by truck and being weighed as we join the tea planter-in-residence, Andrew Taylor, in the first-floor withering room. He's a fourth-generation tea planter, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the industry and art of tea drinking and a fruity Lankan-Scottish accent full of extravagantly rolling Rs. His great-grandfather's first cousin, James Taylor, is credited with founding the island's tea industry in 1867, after leaf blight destroyed all the coffee estates planted by the British in the early 1800s. Camellia sinensis, by contrast, succumbed to few diseases and Ceylon tea, as it's still called, thrives in four distinct elevations, from sea level to 1800 metres. Who knew there was so much technical precision and accumulated wisdom in a good cup of tea?
"Are we ready?" asks Taylor, and he plunges into the history of tea, its chemical composition (enzymes, polyphenols, three oils creating the aroma), its remarkable health benefits and its labour-intensive agriculture (each of hundreds of thousands of camellia bushes must be plucked four times a month by 670 pluckers employed on Norwood estate's 530 hectares).
Freshly plucked tea smells a little like newly mown lawn, and it's spread on long, open withering troughs around which air is circulated by fans for 16 to 18 hours (Taylor describes the role of the withering supervisor, joking: "Don't give me that withering look, Helen"). It takes 20,000 kilograms of plucked leaves to make 5000 kilograms of black tea. The withered tea is fed into four rollers, triggering oxidation and the start of a fascinating chain of events that must be achieved precisely within today's time frame of two hours and 50 minutes. This is done with surprisingly low-tech machinery and a high degree of care.
The rolled tea is minced, sifted and spread on 10 white-tile fermenting slabs. Fermentation (the critical difference between black and green tea) is halted by drying the leaves at 120 degrees for precisely 21 minutes before they're cooled, collected into blue plastic tubs and sifted through a series of screens to create five grades of tea, then packed into foil-lined 58-kilogram sacks. A sample is tasted on site and another sent to Colombo, where a broker will sip and value the batch and sell it at auction every Wednesday for an average price of 400 rupees ($3) a kilogram. Within three weeks of plucking, the tea is sold, blended, packaged, shipped and plucked for a second time from supermarket shelves around the world.
In a little white-tile room under a retro poster saying "Ceylon Tea: The World Knows No Better", Taylor shows us how to taste and assess two grades of tea that were plucked from the same shrubs just yesterday morning. In two little china pots he pours boiled water and one teaspoon each of BOP No. 14 ("your English afternoon tea") and BOP Fannings ("a stronger tea with a smaller particle size, used in English breakfast tea"). He leaves it for five minutes, strains the tea and collects the infused leaves on the top of the pot lid.
First, he examines a sample of dry leaves for blackness and fibrous particles. "Now we're going to nose the pot. Relax, and have a good sniff," he says, taking one long, noisy sniff and two short ones, "to check for a lemony, citrus aroma and to detect any foreign smells". No perfume, smoke or paint here.
Next he examines the infused leaves - "This should give us a bright, coppery colour, which means the factory manager has set the oxidising time just right" - and the liquor, which "should have the appearance of a good sherry, with a sparkle in the cup".
"Tasting tea is just like tasting wine," Taylor says. "With a loud slurp I take the tea right to the back of my mouth," he gurgles in the wine taster's way, "take in lots of oxygen, roll it in the mouth, under the tongue, another quick turn, then I spit it into the spittoon." Professionals, after all, are tasting between 800 and 1000 teas a day.
Taylor says he seeks four basic tastes. First, foreign traces (rare), then the strength of the liquor: "This comes from the tannins, which will coat your mouth, [adding] a little furriness and dryness." Next, he looks for briskness, which comes from the caffeine in the leaf: "Do you get a tingling sensation at the tip of the tongue, a freezing, numbing feeling?" Finally, he considers the pungency of the leaf, which comes from the polyphenols: "It's a gumminess in your mouth, like when you have a glass of champagne or lick a stamp."
"Let's start savouring it," he says, and we are given a shot glass of BOP No. 14. "Sniff. Slurp, roll it around the mouth, under the tongue, another good turn, spit out or swallow. Relax, take a little air to the mouth. No foreign taste, bitter-sweet, refreshing - yes, see, your eyes are opening up - inner mouth is coated, average strength, you've got that tingling feeling, the briskness? And quite gummy." It's the freshest tea I've tasted, yet he rates it only 70 out of 100, not quite enough to fetch a top price.
Our next glass of BPO Fannings is more robust, full-bodied and pungent. Again, Taylor rates it as only average.
He drinks six cups a day and recommends we drink at least four. As well as the health benefits, "every time you drink a cup of tea, you're relaxed, refreshed and gently stimulated". The British began the practice of adding milk and sugar to mask the taste of poorly made, bitter tea; Taylor insists a good cup needs neither.
I consider strength, briskness and pungency that afternoon on the verandah of Tientsin, looking across an English garden to a valley covered in the green corduroy of tea terraces. On the tea menu are seven Dilmah flavoured teas and infusions and four wattes, or single-estate teas. These are described in similar terms to wine: "Full-bodied with a big structure and fleshy, like cabernet sauvignon" at 250 metres; "medium-bodied, analogous to syrah, grown on steeper slopes facing the sun" at 100 metres; and "elegant, comparable to a pinot noir" at our present elevation of 1400 metres.
I choose Ran Watte, the "champagne" of teas, grown at 1740 metres at Lover's Leap Estate. It is described as "light brown yellow with green nuances, bright, breezy and snappy, yet with tannins of fortitude. Long-lasting in aftertaste." Before me is a three-tiered arrangement of cucumber sandwiches, lemon-curd tartlets and fruit cakes. Janaka pours a cup of "champagne" tea, no milk or sugar. Now, this is high tea.
Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of Wildlife Safari.
Singapore Airlines has a fare to Colombo from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1190 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Colombo (3hr 40min); see singaporeair.com. Australians must apply for an online travel authorisation before arrival for a stay of up to 30 days; see eta.gov.lk.
Ceylon Tea Trails is included in a range of itineraries in Sri Lanka run by Perth-based Wildlife Safari. A 12-day Sri Lanka in Style tour includes visits to Negombo, Sigiriya, Kandy, Thirappane and Tea Trails, from $3795 a person twin share. This includes a chauffeur guide and private vehicle, luxury accommodation, all entrance fees, breakfast daily and all meals while at Tea Trails. An eight-day Cultural Sojourn includes time in Colombo, Kandy and the Cultural Triangle and costs from $1495 a person. Phone 1800 998 558; see www.wildlifesafari.com.au.