The next leg of our journey took us to us to one of the most fascinating and exciting tea estates I have ever been to. Idalgashinna began life as a tea estate in 1984. It quickly became one of the pioneers of organic tea farming and was certified Organic back in 1989. This pioneering nature was further exemplified by it being categorised as Biodynamic since 1999. More on what this means exactly later. Further to this it has acted under the Fairtrade banner since 1992. 274 hectares of estate producing around 200 tonnes of some of the finest tea in Sri Lankan each year (plus 10 hectares producing 500kg of coffee).
My visit started with a very warm welcoming committee, who presented me with the traditional floral garland and painted dot to my forehead. I have honestly never felt so welcome in my life. It was a shame my attire was hardly befitting of such hospitality.
After such a fine introduction I was informed of the plan for the day. A detailed look at the methods used to allow this estate to be Organic and Biodynamic, a look around the Fair-trade Office, the Medical Facility and many fine community related buildings would be followed by a visit to the factory that completes the whole process. This was where I received a little surprise. The factory used by the Idalgashinna estate is situated around 1½ hours hard drive from the estate office where I was sitting. Planned timings (and potentially our afternoon appointments) out of the window I embraced the moment and expectantly started the tour.
This began at the compost area, which I am certainly not ashamed in saying was very exciting to me. This is where the quality starts, this is the food that the tea plants need to thrive. Each pile is assigned a number and has the start date of its existence followed by the date of each time it is turned carefully written on its sign. A mixture of chopped up green material and cow dung, each pile is left for 3 months to mature, being turned every 2 to 3 weeks, before it is is used on the land.
My next stop was the CPP Hut (Cow Pat Preparation Hut). This was where the manure collected from cows was placed in special pits and developed. By controlling the conditions only the 'good' bacteria were allowed to develop. Good bacteria don't smell, bad bacteria do. I can vouch for this as a handful of aged dung was handed to me to smell. It smelt slightly floral. When this dung is ready it has egg shell powder and rock dust added to it along with the bio preparations I will explain next. It is then added to water and sprayed in the leaf, to both protect and nourish it.
I was also treated to a visit to the Liquid Manure Hut (disappointingly not abbreviated this time!). Again, no smell greeted me as the lid was removed. My attitude towards cow waste was changing.
Then the tour thrust me headlong into a new world. I had previously researched Biodynamic farming in a broad sense but had not seen it in such detail first hand. The Makaibari estate where our Darjeeling teas come from is also run in this way and our tour of this garden a few years ago had had stirred my interest but I had clearly not read enough since that trip.
A little explanation is needed first. Biodynamics was first developed in the early 1920s and is based on the spiritual insights and practical suggestions of the Austrian writer, educator and social activist Dr. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). The Biodynamic Association website describes it as follows:
'Biodynamic farmers strive to create a diversified, balanced farm ecosystem that generates health and fertility as much as possible from within the farm itself. Preparations made from fermented manure, minerals and herbs are used to help restore and harmonize the vital life forces of the farm and to enhance the nutrition, quality and flavor of the food being raised. Biodynamic practitioners also recognize and strive to work in cooperation with the subtle influences of the wider cosmos on soil, plant and animal health.'
The manufacture of these 'preparations' was what I was just about to be immersed into (but not literally thankfully). I was first shown a shelter which looked ever so slightly like it belonged in a Police case file (see picture). Sure enough this was where various preparations had been buried to again develop this good bacteria. Cows horns filled with manure, cows bladders filled with yarrow flowers, cows intestines stuffed with Valerian flowers plus many more combinations are buried for 6 months according to the Biodynamic calendar (buried in October, dug up in March). This calendar takes into the interaction of the planets and constellations with the earth. By this I mean a wide range of effects - from simply day, night and the seasons of the year to the more subtle effects such as the effect of the moon on the tides and ground water rising to the surface when there is a full moon. The latter leads to a greater amount of sap in the tea leaves when plucked at full moon, which has a positive effect on the flavour. There is much, much more to this topic, but the above is what I managed to scribble down in my notebook on my visit. If you are fascinated (as I am) then more can be found at the website above.
This particular part of the tour finished in the Biodynamic office, where everything was planned and recorded in intricate detail. I was left wondering why anyone would grow anything in any other way. A truly impressive set up and I had only visited one section of the estate. We moved on to the next area, the Fairtrade Office. More on that in part II of the blog.