Ceylon Tea trails
Written by Amruta Jejurikar
January 27, 2017
Where Tea is a Religion…
There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.–Henry James
As we were driving up the beautiful hills of Nuwara Eliya region to get to the Ceylon Tea Trails Tientsin Bungalow, we knew paradise was coming our way. As a tea fanatic and a well-known tea addict, I was beyond excited to visit a place that puts tea front and center, in all its glory. And boy did they do it and how! Thanks to Black Swan Journeys and the time spent at this gorgeous bungalow, we are currently at serious risk for finding all future vacations boring and dull!
The lush greenery on the drive over was punctuated with the warm smiles of the plantation workers with their overhead sacks of tea leaves and long sticks that they use as a level to decide the optimum plucking height.
At the end of the workday, they are paid based on the weight and quality of the tea leaves plucked. A lot of unethical practices exist in the tea production business that exploit the plantation workers, but we were impressed with the fair practices carried out in this region, in addition to supporting the families of the workers with respect to free schools, child support and education, and health care.
After a long drive, we finally reached the bungalow. On that chilly, rainy evening, it stood tall and warm, waiting to welcome us into what can only be described as the cozy living room of your favorite aunt’s vacation home. The room was inviting with comfortable couches, soft music, books from around the world, and unlimited tea! The staff was courteous, well informed and sharply dressed in traditional, formal Sri Lankan attire. After having a welcome drink, we had a little chat with the resident chef about the elaborate 4-course dinner that was being planned for us on the balcony, and we didn’t have much to say in response to that, except “Oh wow!”
After checking into our beautiful room, we got ready for our special dinner. Thanks to the altitude of this highly secluded bungalow, we were able to have a beautiful meal under the stars! The meal was creatively planned and well executed, with several wine pairing options. Anyone who knows me, knows that I love potatoes and am always looking forward to knowing new ways of cooking and eating them, so at this dinner, I had a potato baklava of sorts – ultra-thin slices of potatoes compressed together with herbs, garlic and butter. Or at least that’s what I tasted! The meats were prepared well and the salads were dressed to perfection. I can’t wait to recreate some of those dishes in my own kitchen.
Given how hot it was in Sri Lanka before we reach Nuwara Eliya, I was legitimately concerned that the bungalow didn’t have air conditioning, only to realize that the air up there is already perfectly conditioned. After a long day of being on the road, a sumptuous meal, and one too many glasses of wine, we got a relaxing night’s sleep in an old English style bed, with mosquito nets draped over it. The next day, we couldn’t wait to explore the property, and the warm daylight made the bungalow even prettier than we could have imagined the previous evening!
But first, some tea.
Early in the morning, one of the bungalow staff members brought in this beautiful teapot of delicious local tea. The tea was so fragrant and gorgeous, I would have consumed it out of a tacky disposable glass, but tea is meant to be sipped, not gulped! Every single time we ordered the “tea”, it was more of a tea experience for us, complete with fine chinaware and tea-cozy, reminding me of the way my dear grandmother drinks her tea from time to time. As with many other days in my life so far, I knew it would be a fabulous day since it started with such a fabulous cup of tea!
While we were waiting for our breakfast to be prepared “to order”, we had a chance to explore our surroundings. Our room was stocked with various books on many different subjects. Throughout our 2-day stay at the bungalow I managed to read 2 books cover to cover, which also happens to be the total number of books I happened to read last year! I guess the missing element was the peace and quiet – something I’m determined to recreate at home.
The bungalow was gorgeous inside and out, and tastefully decorated with artifacts from decades of Sri Lankan and world history. There were 6 bedrooms in the bungalow with lots of common reading areas for people to just sit and relax with a drink or a cup of tea, alone or with someone new. The atmosphere was relaxed and informal, and the staff was constantly eager to serve – with tea, or a cocktail, a snack, or a useful tip to get around the bungalow!
And just like that, it was time for breakfast. To call this a meal “with a view”, would be a gross understatement. Let’s just say that if this was my daily breakfast view, I’d happily eat watered down oatmeal for the rest of my life!
Breakfast at the bungalow was as delicious as it was beautiful. We had the choice between the usual continental fare and classical Sri Lankan cuisine, so we decided to try both during our stay. The meal included various freshly squeezed juices (mango, watermelon, coconut, king coconut) and a plate of fresh fruits, which seems to be a tradition in Sri Lanka. We had some cheesy, soft cooked eggs with baked beans and hash browns, and an omelet with smoked bacon.
We also tried the traditional Sri Lankan breakfast of String Hoppers (referred to as Idiyappam in India, although the Sri Lankan version is made with red rice flour instead of white) with various vegetable, seafood and meat curries, featuring grated coconut as the star ingredient. The Hoppers are like a light noodle pancake, soft and mild in texture. My favorite part of the breakfast, which I’ll soon be making at home, was the Pol Roti: a thick, savory coconut flatbread made with wheat flour, freshly grated coconut, green chilies and curry leaves. And of course, there was tea.
The next stop was a visit to one of the local tea factories, where we closely saw the process of making tea – right from plucking the tea leaves to packaging the tea powder, and the most delicious step of all, tasting the tea. Our tour guide at the factory was extremely knowledgeable not just about the process, but about how tea drives the entire economy of that part of the country!
The tea is first air-dried to remove the excess moisture from the leaves, and then goes through various natural and chemical treatments before it is powdered into various grades. Depending on the granularity (loose leaf as opposed to finely ground) and extent of chemical conditioning, a certain type of tea can either be the most exclusive, expensive type, or something that goes straight to refuse. The tea leaves are meticulously weighed, sorted, packaged and labeled, before they go to a worldwide tea auction, where it is purchased by the big tea labels to be re-processed and branded.
We also attended a tea tasting, in which the tea expert demonstrated how just minutes of over-steeping could change the taste of the tea. After seeing the conditions in which the tea is made and how hard the plantation workers have to work to keep the process going, I vow never to over-steep or over-boil my tea! It was truly humbling to see what goes into my countless cups of tea every day. Fortunately, we were able to bring back this piece of Sri Lanka with us, in the form of various tea leaves! I guess I should start planning for a tea tasting party soon, although I’ll sorely miss the fine china!
Back at the bungalow, we were greeted with a light, flavorful lunch with more breathtaking views of the estate. The preparations were simple but the quality of ingredients took things to another level.
We started with a warm squash soup with the most delightful orange color and fragrance! The citrus flavor of the orange brightened up the squash – a trick I’ll be putting to good use soon to get through the basket of squashes I’ve over-enthusiastically hauled home. The next course featured roasted fish and vegetables, with a punchy, citrusy, creamy sauce that was to die for. The chardonnay and the freshly baked bread rolls were a great accompaniment. Speaking of quality of ingredients, milk and milk products are of top-notch quality in Sri Lanka, so just a simple bowl of yogurt tastes like dessert! We had a baked yogurt based dessert with a jam topping. One of the popular desserts in Sri Lanka involving yogurt is “Curd and Treacle”: a small ramekin of sweet, thick yogurt topped with Treacle, which is palm- or coconut- flavored honey. I’m guessing Treacle would make an excellent pancake or waffle topping, so can’t wait to experiment with it more!
The afternoon showers in Nuwara Eliya forced us to stay indoors, and we couldn’t be more grateful. We spent the afternoon cozying up with a few good books and a couple different pots of tea, watching the rain and relaxing. Seemed like a good time to promise each other that at least once a month, we’ll recreate that setting wherever we are!
For dinner, we went with the traditional Sri Lankan meal of “Rice and Curry”.
Highly misleading nomenclature aside, Rice and Curry typically refers to White Rice (tossed with a few fried onions and curry leaves) and an array of small bowls, filled with meat, vegetable and seafood preparations.
The dry, sautéed vegetable preparations are called “sambol” and feature freshly grated coconut, and tempered curry leaves and mustard seeds. One of the peculiar vegetarian sambols is the “Baby Jack”, which is baby jackfruit cooked in a curry, which texturally resembles chicken, and seems to be a local favorite.
Seafood typically involves crab, prawns or local white fish, cooked in a light tomato sauce. Another popular item is also Cashew Curry, which involves Cashew nuts cooked to perfection in a coconut cream sauce. Meat is typically cooked in a spicy tomato and onion based sauce.
The next morning, it was time for us to head to our next destination in Sri Lanka, and the staff at the bungalow was kind enough to pack us lunch for the road so we could beat the traffic while entering the city of Colombo! We felt extremely relaxed and recharged at the same time, which I guess is a feeling tea brings to everyone.
Having brought back a bunch of ingredients from local Sri Lankan grocery stores, a couple of specialized cooking utensils, cookbooks and most important of all, tea, I can’t wait to brew some of these memories here at home – but that view? We’re going to have to keep going back for that!
Article & photographs by our Resident Blogger and a Food & Travel enthusiast Amruta Jejurikar who also has her own food blog ‘one pie at a time’