If you were asked to name a staple product from Sri Lanka you would probably say tea. Over 1 million Sri Lankans work in the industry and about 4% of the island’s land mass is given over to the cultivation of the crop. It wasn’t always thus.
At the start of the Brits’ colonisation of the island then known as Ceylon, coffee was the staple crop but in the late 1860s a disease known as coffee rust brought the industry and the island’s economy to a state of collapse.
A Scotsman, James Taylor, is credited with establishing the first commercial tea plantation, just 19 acres on the Loolecandra estate near Kandy, in 1867. By 1872 he had established a fully equipped tea factory on the estate and the first consignment of Ceylon tea reached Blighty’s shores the following year. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, no less, remarked that “the tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the lion at Waterloo”.
We had a very interesting tour of the hill country in Sri Lanka where all you can see is tea bushes. The crop grows best at altitudes in excess of 2,100 metres and requires annual rainfall of around 100 to 125 centimetres. Principally, the method of cultivation is what is known as contour planting with the bushes planted in lines that follow the contours of the slopes of the hills.
Travelling around that part of Sri Lanka you would have thought you were in Scotland, many of the estates and some of the place names bearing testimony to the Scottish antecedents of the colonial planters.
We visited the Glenloch tea factory and had an interesting tour around the site, finishing off with a lovely pot of tea and the opportunity, which we didn’t pass on, to buy some of the produce. Inevitably – it is amazing how often this is the case – the produce didn’t taste as wonderful at home as it did in loco.
A high proportion of the tea workers are women – about 75% to 85% – and they are paid a pittance. They pluck two leaves and a bud from the bush which gives the beverage its flavour and taste. Because the tea in Sri Lanka is picked by hand (still) the growers can ensure the quality of their end product. The factories themselves are full of Heath Robinson contraptions which date back to the Victorian era and which subject the leaves to a number of processes including rolling, fermentation, firing to retain the heat after fermentation and sifting. It was a surprise to me – shows what I know – that the various types of tea come from the same leaf – the differentiator being the size of the bit of the leaf as it is sifted.
Many of the tea pickers are Tamil by origin – they were brought over in the mid 19th century initially to work the coffee plantations and later moved on to tea, thus sowing racial strains with the indigenous Sinhalese which has blighted the country ever since.
Next up, the delightful town of Nuwara Eliya.