The British love of a cup of tea dates back to the 1600s among the aristocracy, but was widespread among the working class by the end of the nineteenth century. The humble cup of tea at an English vicarage can be analyzed as reshaping huge swathes of the earth, moving Tamil workers from India to Sri Lanka at the end of the nineteenth century, and clothing this country’s highlands in low, dark green bushes. Its a complex history, but its also a nice drink.
Yesterday I went to see Amba Estate, a tea plantation and artisanal maker of high quality teas. It was a half an hour drive through the rolling hills out of the upcountry town Ella. When we arrived it looked like a farm in Umbria in Italy, lots of stone outbuildings, a tall green ridge to the right capped by rock outcrops, lounging dogs in the sunny yard, and panoramic views to other valleys and hills full of tea plants and trees. Inside the first long row of rooms Sri Lankan women were roasting coffee beans by hand, cutting dried lemon grass, and wandering about. There is a guest house here – well planter’s lodge would be a more fitting title. Is full of antique furniture and is one of the nicest places to stay in Sri Lanka (it costs around $50 for a room or $130 to have the whole house for the night).
The energetic English woman who runs the estate, Beverly, has taken on the task of converting this place into an ethical and sustainably run, high-end tea grower and producer. Here the tea is hand made. I’ve visited other, more conventional and much larger tea plantations and factories in Sri Lanka and there the workers earn only $140 a month and the tea is prepared (withering, drying, etc) by large steel machines in a big warehouse, and results in much lower quality cups of tea. At Amba it is much more like William Morris’s ideal community of workers sharing in the fruits of their labour and investing their energies and intelligence in making something worthwhile from plucking the green leaves of the tea plant all the way to packaging the tea ready for sale. They also grow a few spices, for example cinnamon, which is native to Sri Lanka. Here one of the workers peels cinnamon, which comes not from the trees bark, but from the layer just beneath the bark.
Beverley’s tour of the estate was the most intelligent and interesting tour I’ve been on in ages, and if you get to Sri Lanka, and have ever enjoyed drinking tea, I recommend doing it. I’ve rekindled my love of high-end hand-made tea, particularly green tea as I’m fond of the connection with ancient China and Japan and the fact that the tea leaves are not oxidized (that’s what makes the tea leaves black, and makes black tea – anti-oxidants from green tea may boost longevity slightly, although the scientists still haven’t produced exact epidemiological evidence for this). Amba sell their tea to places like Claridge’s in England for about forty three pounds a packet at the retail end, but I was able to buy some of their green tea for much less at the estate. This is considered by those who know to be the best green tea from outside of China. Basically this stuff tastes better.
I’ve been reminded that I should steep these high quality leaves in water that is three parts boiling to one part room temperature, for three minutes, and then empty the water from the kettle into cups. You can reuse these leaves for up to five times by refilling the pot, but don’t let the leaves sit in the water in between cups, rather make sure you empty the pot of tea entirely. I’ll enjoy doing so knowing that I’ve visited the tea plants and drying racks where my leaves began life.
Samuel Johnson drank tea, and I know it his tea did not come from tea bags. In the words of that long-dead Englishman: