Sri LankaNo trip to Sri Lanka is complete without at least a pass through the country’s glorious central hill country. Go one better, though, and take your time: chug past tea plantations on one of the world’s great train rides–stop off to visit a tea factory–and spend a few nights in the cool, misty realm of a former British hill station. During our month-long stay in Sri Lanka, Tom and I did all of these things. Here are five indelible memories of our travels through Sri Lanka’s “pure Ceylon tea” country.

Learning about tea

We spent the better part of a day at the Somerset Tea Factory, where tea is produced in Somerset’s name and for export, under the well-known Dilmah label. We began with a tour through the factory, where we were shown every step of the painstaking process that turns bright green tea leaves into the pekoes we know. It’s a ten-step process: green leaf receiving, spreading the leaves, withering, collecting, then rolling the withered leaves, fermenting, firing, grading, storing and finally, dispatching shipments to brokers.

Aruna Bandaranayake, Senior Manager of the Somerset Estate, then asked us to don aprons for a lesson in tasting tea, a test that every batch of tea undergoes…it’s a daily management chore at the factory, before a shipment can be transferred to the broker’s market for competitive bidding. It was a little like tasting wine or olive oil, accomplished with slurpy gusto.

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An estate of 460 hectares, Somerset is in the famous Dimbula Valley on the Western slopes of Sri Lanka’s Tea Country. Tea was first planted here in the 1870s after the flourishing coffee industry was destroyed by a leaf blight. A Western High-Grown Estate (above 1,400 meters), Somerset processes upwards of 40,000 kilograms of grain leaf each year.
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The aroma of “fresh leaves” is intense, and hits you as soon as you enter the building, but it is still not exactly TEA.
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Sign on the wall of the withering room at Somerset…”The objective of withering is to reduce the moisture content of the leaf, to concentrate the juices and bring the physical condition to a “rubbery” state in which it withstands twisting, without breaking up the flakes.” According to our host, it takes 16-20 hours of withering to achieve a “brighter teacup”!
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Rolling is the process whereby leaves are crushed, spreading juices through the leaves. After that, it’s time for fermenting, to “develop the nose”. The aroma of “broken tea leaves” stays with you throughout the rolling, fermenting and firing areas.
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Each morning, teas are measured out, brewed and tasted by members of Somerset management. The aim is to identify any problems, before a shipment goes to market.
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We learned to sip–and use the spitoon–a lot like wine-tasting, but with a higher slurp quotient. It’s important to take in the liquid while breathing, to assess body of the tea and thickness of the “liquor”. The fancy ware on the right is for serving guests, not taste-testing.

Meeting the tea pluckers

Tea plantations are tended by men, but the task of picking tender leaves for daily processing is the province of women, and at Somerset, more than 800 of them. The picturesque woven baskets of the past have mostly been replaced by purpose-built ones made of light-weight technical fiber. They’re ergonomic these days, and can be filled in a series of single motions, which the tea pickers demonstrated for us. It’s still a tough job, but the new gear lightens the load, just a little.

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A good cup of tea starts in the field. “Morning leaf” until 10:00, “Noon leaf” from 10:30-12:00, and “Evening leaf from 14:00-16:30. The best leaves are harvested before noon.
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The picturesque woven baskets of the past have mostly been replaced by purpose-built ones made of light-weight technical fiber.
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Tea pluckers use a leveling stick, to manage their progress across the bushes, selecting the bud and the next two young leaves, as they make the best tea. The bud contains the highest amount of polyphenols and is used to make white tea, an intensely aromatic brew high in antioxidants.
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Ceylon’s tea history began with the demise of coffee crops in the 19th century, and establishment of a plantation economy. Some tea pluckers have been on the Somerset estate for five generations.
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Caption: Twice each workday, tea pluckers queue to have their morning’s or afternoon’s work weighed.
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Women queue to weigh the morning’s harvest.
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The tea pluckers help with the weighing of leaves. Twice a day.

A proper cup of tea

Today, Dilmah is one of the top tea brands in the world, owning the tea plantations, process of tea leaves and packaging the tea for sale. After touring the factory and tasting the morning’s tea production, we were invited us to the estate manager’s home for tea.

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With our genial host at the Somerset estate, Senior Manager Aruna Bandaranayake.
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Somerset Senior Manager Aruna Bandaranayake invited us to tea at his bungalow, reminding us that “There are a minimum of 850 people involved in a cup of tea”!

Meeting kids and caregivers

We ended our visit to Somerset at the company’s child-care and health facilities. From the estate’s health team, we learned about the school’s awareness program for HIV, involvement in the Rainforest Alliance, and efforts to teach the children to “love nature”.

The MJF Charitable Foundation was established by Dilmah Founder Merrill J. Fernando, to fulfill his commitment to make his family business a matter of human service. The Foundation utilizes revenues from the global sales of Dilmah teas to change the lives of the underprivileged in Sri Lanka.

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Children at the center were a bit apprehensive when we arrived on the scene.
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A Hindu shrine on the Somerset estate.
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Workers at the Somerset child care center enjoy looking at pictures, while the little one is not so sure.

Luxuriating in boutique comfort

Several nights at the Langdale by Amaya gave us a chance to rest and recover from weeks of temples and nature in the flatlands of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle.

The first night, the sound of a steady rain on the roof had us burrowing deep into comfy bedding. Even mealtimes were cozy at the Langdale, with just thirteen rooms and an intimate dining room to accommodate everyone. Spa services, the only grass tennis courts in the country, and a chance to trek through tea fields, made the Langdale by Amaya an ideal place to chill in this part of Sri Lanka!

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Clipped hedges and pristine lawns are a hallmark of Langdale by Amaya. Set amid tea plantations south of Nuwara Eliya, the property is straight from a story book.
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Welcome drinks at the Langdale by Amaya, served up with roses!
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Langdale by Amaya takes great pride in its grass tennis courts, overlooked by rows of tea bushes.
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Langdale by Amaya offers the home-like setting of an English manor house, and service to match. The staff is attentive but discreet, the food outstanding (ask for Sri Lankan options that may not be on the menu, especially at breakfast).
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View from our room at the Langdale by Amaya. This luxury boutique hotel is surrounded by lush tea plantations and waterfalls. A dream!

If you go

Make the most of slow travel and revel in Sri Lanka’s laid-back culture:

  • Stop in at the tea museum in Kandy before you head for the hills
  • Take the train, sit in the doorway and watch the world go by
  • Make time for down time, stopping along the way for an overnight stay
  • Enjoy the nature that’s all around, whether on a side trip to Adam’s Peak or a visit to the botanical garden in Nuriya Ella
  • Be sure to visit a tea plantation and factory

Looking for foodie inspiration? You cannot go wrong with suggestions, recipes, and travel hints from Peter Kuruvita, Dilmah brand ambassador and one-man Sri Lanka cheerleading squad! I love Peter’s recipes and videos, and would really, really like to visit one of his restaurants, when I make it to Australia!

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Thanks to our hosts in Sri Lanka tea country: Langdale by Amaya and Sri Lanka Tourism!

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To see all our travel stories from Sri Lanka, click here

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