Frakkin' Ceylon - Day Five

By the time the fifth day arrives, it feels as though we’ve been in Sri Lanka for a long time. (That’s a good thing – it’s not like we’re hankering to get back to Dubai.) There's a strange familiarity with it all, despite the fact we're only a little over half-way through a short trip.
After a breakfast on the apex of the hill, overlooking the jungle, watching palm squirrels and wild peacocks run amok, we head down to the cinnamon museum. How any of that could become familiar, I do not know.
Despite all the colonial décor, this place is relatively new – and the cinnamon was only discovered when it was cleared to make way for a holiday home. Still, what they’ve got now is designed to look as authentic as possible. Certainly the poor bastards harvesting the cinnamon bark look pretty genuine.

This is all explained by Herman, who has a story of his own that’s much more interesting than anything to do with cinnamon. Herman is a tea man; he’s worked with it for the last 45 years of his life, turning land inherited from his father into a working tea plantation. The land is generational – his great grandfather was sold it at a reduced rate as he was growing rice to feed the British army. Until 1974, they had 1200 acres, then the white man decided that he wanted 1000 of it back. Suddenly, what had been in his family for 160 years had all-but disappeared.
“Did they just come and take it?” I ask.
“No, they gave compensation,” he says. “Well that's what they called it; some people might call it something else.”
His father had used the land to grow rubber and coconuts, which is hardly surprising as they’re everywhere.

However, when the land came to him, Herman decided to go for tea. Having worked for the British plantations for over 35 years – at one time handling over 100,000 acres – he was well placed to do so. For the past 14 years has been producing over a dozen different varieties, all of which he personally tastes for quality assurance.
Now 65 years old, in charge of what he believes is the closest plantation to the sea in the world, he produces 20,000 kilos of tea a month and is proud of what he has achieved. His morning walk of five miles around the property, brings him “great sense of contentment.”
He’s got a great archaic way of talking too: he refers to his butler as “the boy”; laughs at the memory of being considered “a little brown fellow” when visiting London; and occasionally says great things like “There are some very untidy goings on in the tea trade, let me tell you”
He’s a wonderful character whose voice will stay with me for a long time, though as hospitable as he is to us, I get the impression he’d be terrifying to work for.
Already one of the most interesting folk I’ve met in a long time, he sits us down to enjoy a slice of cake and a cup of his masterpiece, the Virgin White, which at US$1500 a kilo is the most expensive tea in the world. By the time he’s finished telling me its story, I know I’m sitting on my second Really Good Story of the trip. It’s hard not to grin, it really is.
During the 5th and 6th centuries, in the dynasties of Emperors Tsong and Tsang, the Chinese mandarins employed virgins to harvest white tea. They cut the leaves with golden scissors and caught them in golden bowls before they were brewed and offered to the Emperor. That way, the only part of the human anatomy that ever touched the tea were the Big Man's lips. “It was a nice story, but nothing more,” chuckles Herman. “Besides, if I’d run around telling people I was looking to employ virgins, they’d have thought I had bats in my belfry!”
Some time later, he met a
Nose in France. The Nose was sitting with five jasmine flowers from five different countries and claimed that he could identify them individually by smell. He explained to Herman that when something is harvested by hand (and there is no other way to harvest tea) the way people eat, drink and subsequently sweat inevitably taints the crop.
Herman returned to Sri Lanka and decided to blind test himself with tea that had been harvested traditionally and that which had never been touched by human hand. He could immediately tell the difference – in a country with a diet as pungent and spicy as Sri Lanka's, it was perhaps unsurprisingly.
Thus he set about making Virgin White tea a reality, his only variation being that the harvesters need not be virgins. Now he has an exclusivity deal with a tea shop on the Champs-Élysées and makes a massive profit from his unique (heavily copyrighted) product. I’m so amazed by the story, I barely set aside time to enjoy the tea itself, but from what I remember it tastes Quite Good.
By the time we leave, the rest of the day seems a little empty, but on the way home we finally see the fishermen we’d been looking for.

Which is cool and all, but a little disappointing when we’re immediately harassed for money afterwards. Still, we escape – and another half dozen or so chancers later – find a spot to watch another weird sunset.