Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones
Photos: Margaret Richards
Accustomed as we are to seeing tea in little square bags or as dry black leaves, it was a wonderful experience to walk amongst waist-high bushes covered in glossy evergreen leaves with serrated edges – Camellia sinensis – otherwise known as Ceylon tea. Tea has been the staple drink of the Chinese for centuries, but it was only after the collapse of Sri Lanka’s coffee trade in the mid-nineteenth century that tea plantations were established there. Fortunes were soon made by the colonial planters and speculators who flooded into the island and vast swathes of hill-country jungles were cleared to make way for new tea estates. Tea production remains an important part of Sri Lanka’s economy today and is still a labour-intensive and low-tech industry. Plucking the leaves is done by hand, mostly by women, who fill large sacks. The youngest two leaves and bud are picked from the end of every branch. We saw very few flowers on the bushes as the constant plucking encourages the plant to produce more leaf buds. After plucking, the leaves are dried and then crushed for about half an hour – a process which releases juices and enzymes and triggers fermentation. This is a crucial element in determining the quality of the tea and appears to be a closely guarded secret between competitors – reminding us of the mystique surrounding wine production! After sufficient fermentation is deemed to have taken place, the tea is fired in an oven to prevent further fermentation. The tea is then graded into an endless permutation of forms and flavours, after which it is tasted by highly specialised tea tasters before being sent for auction. Orange Pekoe is the top quality tea, with the leaves intact, whereas the fragments and dust are used for tea bags.
Sri Lanka is of course noted for its spices and we found it fascinating to walk through little settlements where nutmeg, clove and cinnamon trees were growing. These spices can also be gathered and prepared without complicated machinery. We saw cloves being dried in the sun on mats outside little homesteads and learnt that they are actually the aromatic flower buds of the Syzigium aromaticum, a tree in the Myrtle family and relative of our Waterbessie (Syzigium cordatum). Nutmeg trees (Myristica fragrans) have fruit that looks rather like apricots, which when ripe splits into two halves exposing a purplish-brown shiny seed – the nutmeg; covered by a net-like red leathery outer growth called aril – the mace. The fruit is opened by hand, the aril (mace) removed and flattened by hand and put on mats to dry in the sun for two to four hours. The nutmegs are dried in their shells in the sun and are turned each day to prevent fermentation. The nuts are dry enough when they rattle, usually after a week. Dried nutmeg can be sold as it is or shelled and only the kernels sold.
Cinnamon has been produced in Sri Lanka for many centuries, and initially brought to Europe by Arab traders. Later the trade was taken over by the Portuguese followed by the Dutch, until the British took control of the island and abolished the cinnamon monopoly. We visited a small island with a grove of indigenous cinnamon trees (Cinnamomum verum) and watched a cinnamon peeler demonstrate his trade. Brass hand tools, probably handed down from father to son, are used to shave off the outer layer of the cinnamon branch and then to cut through and expose the inner bark which was sliced off in sections and dried in the sun. These slices curl into light tan-coloured quills which are then packed together to form loose cigar-shaped forms. This is the true cinnamon and not Cassia cinnamon – dark reddish brown in colour and considered of lower quality. The scent of cinnamon is all-pervasive on this tropical island, and is encountered in so many of the delicious dishes as well as soaps and toiletries – even tooth-picks!