Tea was introduced to Ceylon by the British in 1824, with experimental plantings in Peradeniya Botanical Gardens near Kandy. Thereafter, research work done at Peradeniya helped identify the correct vegetation required to bring forth different and unique flavours. It wasn't until 40 years later, however, that the first tea estate was planted by Scotsman James Taylor, at nearby Loolacandoora.
Coffee was then the major income generator, but in the 1870s, just as James Taylor's crop was flourishing, blight devastated the coffee plantations. In desperation, planters replanted their estates with tea, which flourished at moderate altitudes around Kandy. As time went on, it was found that tea would grow up to 2,000 meters, and even on the lowlands.
The colour, aroma, flavour arid "mouth feel" of tea depend on the altitude at which it is grown, as well as the processing and grading. Soil and climate (what the French call terroir when discussing wine) also influence the flavour and quality, as the visitor can discover when sampling at the various tea estates.
The Tea Country is virtually synonymous with the Hill Country, a glorious verdant swathe of hills and mountains set slightly south of the Island's centre. Intensely green hillsides are covered with neatly pruned bushes which come right down to the roadside. Women, draped in vivid saris resemble butterflies as their hands dart over the bushes, plucking the tender tips and throwing them into the large baskets or plastic sacks carried on their backs. The newly picked leaves are then carried to factories for processing.
Many tea estates welcome visitors for an introduction to the process which produces the famous Ceylon Tea. The newly picked leaves are withered for a few hours, then rolled to release their juices and left for about three hours; the bright green leaves are left to oxidize until they turn coppery brown. The leaves are then dried in a hot air chamber, emerging blackened and shrivelled, ready for sifting into various grades, depending on the size of the leaf particles.
Wonderfully nostalgic colonial era bungalows with flower filled gardens generally occupy the most scenic comer of the estate, often looking out over glorious views. Fortunately for the visitor, a number of the most beautiful bungalows have been renovated and turned into exclusive guest houses, complete with cooks and household staff.
The bungalows (some even have swimming pools) are invariably surrounded by scenic attractions, making them an ideal base for exploring one of Sri Lanka's most beautiful regions. There is even a tea factory which has been imaginatively converted into a luxury boutique hotel.
Beautifully packaged Ceylon tea is widely available in Colombo, along with tea caddies, porcelain tea pots and tea cups, strainers and tea "eggs" for brewing a delcious cup of tea.
Few visitors to Sri Lanka are likely to leave without some tea and tea accessories as gifts. Taking back some of the world’s finest tea from this serendipitous isle is the best souvenir.