Our first taste of Sri Lankan hospitality was a meeting with the great man of Ceylon tea - Merrill Fernando - who you can see below with Rob on the right [at this first meeting] and Michelle on the left [at a later meeting in Colombo]. Merrill started Dilmah tea in 1988 and it is now an internationally renowned company - if you have time we would really recommend reading more about all the work that they do - there are many articles widely available through a simple search. Having returned from India with a determination to start our own tea business an introduction through our wonderful friend Jane Pettigrew led us to a meeting in London with the great man. Despite having only flown in the previous night Merrill spent far longer than we expected discussing our then microscopically small business and larger aspirations. His advice and positivity has stayed with us proving invaluable in the coming years and was an early demonstration of the Sri Lankan hospitality that we would be lucky enough to experience many times on our trips to this great country [including on a trip to meet Merrill again at the Dilmah HQ in Colombo]. Our lives in tea have so often been shaped by incredibly kind strangers who over time have become friends - something you can read more in our upcoming book Tales of the Tea Trade.
It was Merrill who introduced us to his Imboolypitiya garden near Kandy which we have since visited on several occasions. The BOP is one of the teas we have stocked since the very start of our journey with Comins. This tea really represents the start of our journey, the kindness of a stranger and delivers a wonderfully full bodied bright cup that is perfect for people seeking a return to full flavoured leaf tea but perhaps seeking a stronger cup. As the manager of this garden Mr EMD Rajasekara explains in our book [...] 'We aim to produce tea for the niche market, that caters to the demand for quality and allows the real value of Ceylon tea to be realised' [...] Climate change and labour shortages pose a significant threat to the tea market in Sri Lanka. Mr Rajasekara shares [...] 'we plan for continuous improvements [at the garden] [...] implementing good agricultural and manufacturing processes [...] and supervising and looking after peoples welfare'
Many people who visit the Tea House and many of you reading this will have been to Sri Lanka - this makes for a wonderful point of connection as we discuss our shared experiences over cups of tea. In fact Sri Lanka is the country where most people have had the chance to get up close with the tea industry and visit some of the factories which line the roads up the the high country. Its a country we too have taken our children to, their first experiences of tea have been here and we highly recommend this as a country to visit as a family
Those of you who have been to Sri Lanka will be aware of the dramatic differences in altitude that can be experienced. The flatter coastal areas around Galle in the south and Columbo to the west soon make way for the high peaks and plateaus of the central areas like Uva and Hatton. This rapid variation means that we often use Sri Lanka to explain how altitude impacts on a teas favour. In general, lower altitude means hotter, more humid conditions which result in faster growth. Nutrients are used for growth meaning that these leaves are better for stronger teas. Low grown Sri Lankan teas give these strong bitter flavours, which are popular in Middle Eastern countries, whereas the strong but brighter middle grown teas are what most British drinkers define as a ‘good black tea’.
Higher altitudes slow the growth of the tea plants meaning that the plant takes in nutrients but store more of them, resulting in more flavoursome teas. These flavours are best revealed in a lighter cup so high grown teas tend to be oxidised less to allow the flavours to shine through. Idulgashinna and our High Grown Ceylon tea is a perfect example of this sort of tea.
As with any where in the world getting to the places where the finest teas grow takes effort. One such memorable and slightly precarious trip was Rob’s first trip to the aforementioned Idulgashinna Estate in the Uva district near Nuwara Eliya. You can see the rather slippery tuk tuk ride in the picture below. This trip really opened our eyes to the world of biodynamic tea production - something we had first experienced in India at Makaibari. In one of the highest points of the island this estate produces incredible teas by caring for the soil, using carefully made ‘good bacteria’ solutions and with no reliance on chemicals. Planting and picking by the lunar cycle is another aspect of the many that make complete sense when fully explained as they were to Rob by the attentive team as Idulgashinna - more details of these agricultural practices are in the book. Welfare of the community working here is also incredibly important as Mr G Rajaratnam, the gardens manager, explained to Rob on his visit and in more detail for the book '[...] we have a social development team chosen from the youth of the community and led by experienced coordinators [.....] every cup of tea is hygienically, naturally produced in a happy and healthy working environment' [...]
If you can't wait for the book to come out and want to learn more about this garden you can read more here in the blog that Rob wrote on that trip and get a real sense of why the tea that we buy from Idulgashinna is one of the most popular black teas on our list. Why not ask for it by name at the Tea House this weekend?
So - back to the start of the story, to the start of our adventures in this wonderful country. It all started with the kindness of one man. So perhaps a good lesson to end on, to reflect on, is for all of us to remember to be kind to someone today. We never know what path that kindness might set them on or what impact our words, advice, wisdom, experience may have.....