Until quite recently, Sri Lanka had disappeared from the British tea connoisseur’s map. While European teaophiles have always rated top Ceylon estates highly, in Britain the 1960s Ceylon Tea centres serving heartburn-provoking tannic brews with vaguely curried veg in cold pastry did nothing to endear it to consumers. During the same period, UK tea brokers deserted Sri Lanka as the industry was nationalised, quality took a nose-dive and the colonial planters either headed for home or for Kenya. To cap all that, the island’s extensive tea plantations were hit by an outbreak of worms resistent to pesticides, a frightening development since a similar outbreak had wiped out coffee production there in perpetuity. A one-off, low-tech solution was found. Children were paid to manually pick off the worms from the leaves. But this salutory demonstration of the limitations of pesticides set Sri Lanka on a course that is now making its teas some of the most exciting in the world. Since this crisis, the national policy has been to use pesticides only in extremis, never preventatively, and to encourage beneficial insect species as a mechanism for predator control. And in the last few years, as the government has introduced the partial re-privatisation of the tea plantations, some of the best estates have taken pesticide-avoidance to its logical conclusion and converted to organic, often the most rigorous and sophisticated type of organic production possible: the biodynamic method of the Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. Steiner advocated the use of natural ‘preparations’, of which more below, and a lunar calendar to plot the optimum time for all operations in the growing cycle. Like homeopathy, the Steiner approach used to be widely mocked as cranky mumbo jumbo.
Nowadays, although the science behind it is still not understood, it is increasingly accepted that it can achieve remarkable results. The biodynamic Iddalgashinna Estate sits at a breathtaking elevation of 6,500 feet in the Beragala Hills ofUva though its presence is announced at lower levels with whitewashedroadside signs declaring it a ‘Toxic Free Zone’. All tea plantations are attractive to the eye, but the set-up here is particularly spectacular. Iddalgashinna’s natural environment shares much with the virgin rainforest on which it borders. Superficially, it looks like a a beautiful green jumble. While many tea plantations consist of concentric lines of tea bushes, here they are interspersed with diverse trees and plants which produce not only vital shade, but beneficial green manures which are then supplemented with worm compost. The only spray the tea bushes get is a Steiner-type ‘preparation’. Fresh dung from a lactating cow is mixed with rock phosphate and crushed eggshell, then packed it into shallow brick trenches, covered with sacking and left for 30 days. The mixture is then turned with a fork and left for a further 30 days. Then it is mixed with water and sprayed on the tea bushes (at the astonishingly tiny ratio of 25 grams to an acre). This rather unconventional spray has proven to be a remarkably effective alternative to pesticides. Taste the output and you’ll appreciate the management and human resources that underpin biodynamic tea growing and the supreme quality it can provide. With the steamy north-east Monsoon rain running down the windows, I worked my way through all Iddalgashinna’s tea grades in the plantation’s delightfully scented tea factory. Always hand-picked, the tea is manufactured in the traditional, skilled ‘orthodox’ manner. There was a green orange pekoe that would create a stampede amongst Japan’s most devoted tea collectors. It’s a very large leaf which unfurls beautifully on infusion to produce a pale green liquor with a ultra-fresh, cut-grass bouquet. Broken down into green fannings, it becomes more tannic with a distinct peatiness.
Even the most committed first-flush Darjeeling lover would surely be left weak-kneed by ‘silvery tips’, the newest growth which produces a light, subtley smokey liquor. The other large leaf black grades are amazing too with pleasant bitterness and a nose of freshly peeled oranges, caramel and cut flowers. In their broken form, that orangeyness makes way for dark caramel and a touch of smoke. The remarkable thing is that Iddalgashinna is not some inconsequential little tea garden. This ‘bio-tea’ estate has a workforce of 1,400 people and a production to match. The estate (which is currently owned by a local company) has its own own nursery school, house building schemes and no less than three medical centres- an infrastructure that is quite standard in the traditional plantation system- but the ethos here is more egalitarian. On most estates, the workers stay respectfully outside the manager’s office window. At Iddalgashinna, they are inside working out the plantation’s transition to community ownership. Many of Wilson’s other Ceylon teas have an equally fascinating pedigree and the sheer selection, complete with erudite supporting information, is paradise for anyone who likes to explore the intriguing nuances of a fine specialist product. Like malt whiskies, each estate has a unique style, as does each district, from the pungent almost astringent Nuwara Eliyas to the more mellow Dimbulas or the delicate Uvas. Just one word of warning, dip you nose into these amazing teas and expect to get hooked.
Joanna Blythman, who lives and works in Edinburgh, is widely regarded as Britain’s leading investigative food journalist. She contributes to various newspapers and periodicals and her book The Food We Eat won the Glenfiddich Award for food writing in 1997.