Tea….my introduction

Tea….my introduction

As a novice tea drinker in 2005 I had the pleasure of visiting Kuwait, on a business trip. Kuwait city is officially a ‘dry’ country’, where alcohol is prohibited, so what better drink to refresh than with tea, whilst waiting for colleagues in the evening.

 

I was staying in Kuwait City and came across a small teashop, within the reception or lobby area selling exclusively Ronnefeldt branded tea. I tried the Morgen Tau, which was delicious & have never looked back.

 

A subsequent visit to Sri Lanka in 2011 and the obligatory Tea plantation tour for Jacqueline (I was still largely one of the uninitiated by this time in 2011, hence the tone of ‘reluctant resignation’). We visited Handunugoda Tea factory, Tittagalla, Ahangama, off the western coast road 30 minutes north of Galle. I found this fascinating from both a cultural & technical perspective. I also found another favourite tea, allegedly so pure the young leaves are cut when still unfurled, by virgins, with gold scissors. A lovely story for their signature ‘Virgin White’ tea. It is a very delicate tea and admittedly one of my favourites.

 

Incidentally, the owner, Herman Gunaratne, wrote a very interesting book on his life, ‘The Suicide Club: A Virgin Tea Planter’s Story’ about the changes experienced as the Country moved from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. He has a website, albeit incomplete, explaining the process: http://hermanteas.com/virgin-white-tea/#. However, I tend to drink this for a special occasion, as it is expensive, regardless where it’s from due to it’s scarcity.

 

As a daily tea, I like Darjeeling, but made wrong can taste burnt & bitter: It needs to be poured with approx 90°C (200 F) water (or a few seconds off the boil), and brewed for 3 minutes, not left to stew or guaranteed it’s too bitter. Good quality ingredients are a must, Darjeeling is the one tea I find differs the most by manufacturer or brand. My favourite whilst in the UAE is the small 20 pack boxes from Carrefour. Strangely enough, it’s the one tea I find no-one ever tends to stock in hotels & restaurants.

 

[Update Jan 17:  We learn as we go along: Darjeeling has been given Special Geographical Indication SGI Status to protect its rare tea from copy-cat producers. Only 87 designated gardens produce this naturally distinctive flavour unable to be replicated elsewhere]  Darjeeling tea

Middle East Chai

Middle East Chai

Having lived and travelled extensively around the Middle East for many years, it’s fitting we have a post on the unique beverages consumed. When the sun is beating down, the temperature is in the 40’s (100’s F), adding some natural minerals back into the body are essential. Vitamin B for Beer doesn’t really work for me (maybe a G & T). What are your favourite drinks in the heat?

Karak Chai

While coffee is the dominant drink in Arabia, tea has gained immense popularity in the form of drinks such as karak chai. Karak is derived from the word ‘kadak’ which means strong in Hindi. A legacy of the UAE’s long-standing trade and cultural relationship with India, this fragrant, spiced drink can be enjoyed in nearly any cafe in the city. Often this is prepared as a boiled, milky tea, where the whole concoction is made & boiled up.

Karak Chai
Shai bil Nana

Shai شاي Bil Nana

However, if you’re in a coffee shop where Shisha is being smoked, it’s not always convenient or healthy to have some of the heavy sweet drinks such as Karak Chai, Jellab, Tamar Hindi, or Turkish coffee (which is so strong as they boil the coffee grounds in water & pour it in a small cup). Turkish coffee happens to be one of my favourite after dinner drinks. It makes sense to drink a refreshing black tea with fresh spearmint leaves, which is wonderfully refreshing. My favourite is a mild Ceylonese tea, but often the main brand, Lipton is provided as a bag with some sprigs of Mint to add flavour as you like. Unfortunately the latter can be a minted stew of bitterness.

Yansoon

Black Tea with Aniseed. I believe this originated from Syria and is very soothing, whilst naturally sweet tasting due to the Aniseed and is used often in herbal teas for nursing mothers.
Many of the teas drank in the Middle East are sweet by the very nature of the heat & often humid climate, where our bodies clamour to add some sugar due to the ‘perspiration’ losses from everyday work. In cooler climates they would be very thick & cloying, but they work here and serve a useful purpose.

Yansoon

Sri Lanka – Island of Smiles

Sri Lanka – Island of Smiles

Many times we’ve been asked where we went on holiday & after stating, ‘Sri Lanka’, quite often receive some look of concern & the inevitable questions, ‘Is it safe?’. When I explain some of the history, climate, religion & landmarks, it becomes quite an adventurous, but safe tale.

Ceylon critters

Sri Lanka Flora and Fauna

 Sri Lanka, ‘Ceylon’ & it’s rich history

 There are many people who remember ‘Ceylon’ & its reputation as a premier supplier of tea (Ceylon tea is not only Black, which you can find more about within our resources pages on our website). However, it’s darker side uncovers the strife caused by the 30-year civil war between the North (predominantly native Indian Hindu ’Tamil Tigers’) & South (Native Sinhalese Buddhists). Following on from independence (from Britain) in 1948 the majority Sinhalese speaking Sri Lankans, attempted to make Sinhalese the sole official speaking language, disenfranchising & depriving many Tamil speakers of citizenship & forced migration to India. The subsequent revolts by the Tamil militia groups & Government forces led up to 100,000 people being killed from the early 70’s until it ended in May 2009.

Only in recent years has the far north opened to foreign visitors, also leading to a general increase in tourism to this verdant, green, island nation.

We lived in the UAE, so exploring countries east of the Arabian Peninsula was a great opportunity rather than travelling to the traditional European holiday spots, surrounding the Mediterranean.

Travelling to Sri Lanka.

 We’ve taken numerous trips to Sri Lanka & love the place, hence the title, ‘Island of smiles’. I always state to interested visitors, Sri Lanka is like a safe, clean version of India (not wanting to dismiss India, but I still believe if a visitor enjoys Sri Lanka, it’s a good introduction to what’s on offer in India). I have friends, especially female, who will not visit India due to incidences of molestation and reported cases of sexual assaults. This is especially the case during major festivals such as Holi. Again, we have to recognise these isolated incidents always tarnish a countries reputation & in no way suggesting you shouldn’t consider India, as it is vast in culture, size & languages.

Dambulla, Central Sri Lanka

Thilanka

Thilanka Resort and Spa, Dambulla

 One particular trip was for a week to ‘Thilanka Resort & Spa’, in Dambulla, in the centre of Sri Lanka near the ancient UNESCO World heritage sites of the city of Sigiriya, where a palace was built on the top of a 200m rock, and the Golden Temple of Dambulla.

Golden Rock Temple of Dambulla

 The Golden Rock Temple, Cave Temple, also known officially as the Rajamah Temple of Rangiri Dambulla, is the largest Buddhist cave monastery in Sri Lanka, dating back 22 centuries. Built into a rock face it holds 157 statues of the Buddha and some magnificent images painted on the rock cave faces. Incidentally, it was also from here where the Buddhist monks led the nationalist uprising against the British in 1948.

However, the real fun is in the journey.

At the time, we only had our eldest daughter, Amelie, who was 10 months old, so I had the unenviable task of walking up the 100’s of steps to get to the temple, passing a few street sellers, with unique wooden puzzle boxes & other knick-knacks for sale. It’s amazing how a 5Kg(11lb) weight can feel like 50kg (110lb) Note to self: ‘walking uphill is far easier on your knees than downhill’. We always come away with some trinket or other of interest, but hopefully a unique memento to the region. (It’s no surprise when a few visitors to our last home stated it reminds them of a museum!). Sri Lanka is home to one of the World’s richest deposits of Gemstones, such as Sapphire, Ruby, Topaz, Amethyst and high purity Gold, such as 22K, which is sold as much to the local population as it is to the rapidly increasing tourist market.

 

Schoolgirls

 My wife & I, both being of a fair complexion & our daughter the same with blue eyes & fair hair, attracted the local girls school party (as well as the monkeys). I’ve never quite been mobbed by so many school girls wishing to touch a baby. It can get a little overbearing except for the beautiful toothy smiles from all the girls, as they attempt to stroke, pat & generally touch Amelie, almost as though they have never seen a blonde, blue-eyed baby before.

The monkeys, forever little thieves, always on the lookout for some extra food or another plaything they can run into a tree with.

 We went to the cave temple, which as is standard practice in many temples, can be entered only barefoot. Shoes are left at a station with a short 20-30 metre walk to the main entrance & then across a courtyard, which is hilarious at the height of the day, with the gasps of, ‘ooh, ah, ee!’ & imitations from Monty Python’s ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ sketch, with people running across the sun-baked courtyards barefoot, before getting back to some shade.

A great day out for what was a beautiful relaxing holiday. We would recommend if you’re going to Sri Lanka & can manage to take it slow, it’s worth staying inland for a few days otherwise it’s a trek, with a 4-5 hour drive from Colombo and the West coast. Get to know the local Tuk-tuk drivers, who will act as tourist guides in return for the price of a fare. The chances are the level of service & comfort will be higher than the coastal resorts, which are priced at a premium. Our 1 week stay cost approximately 500 Euro. We ended our holiday just North of Galle for 3 days, which was at least double what we paid in Dambulla.

Research your destination 

 As with every location, it’s worth knowing a little bit of history and culture before being an ‘idiot abroad’. For example, if I was travelling to the North, it’s worth checking the route, as there have been some continuous mine-clearing operations, so it wouldn’t be wise to explore off the beaten track without a guide. However, most of the major tourist attractions and hotels are in the South, as the North slowly re-opens in areas, such as Jaffna & Trincomalee.

There are still ongoing problems within Sri Lanka, as the government in 2015 had initially refused entry to the UN to investigate alleged war crimes during the civil war. In late 2015, the government temporarily refused entry to foreigners wishing to travel to the North. However, the latest news is that Sri Lanka is expected to become a fully demilitarised country from 2018, which is encouraging. The whole country is now free to visit.

Regardless of its recent history, Sri Lanka makes a great vacation spot. The food is tremendous, being a relatively small island, with fish a staple in many recipe combinations.

Fish for dinner

Weather

 The weather is constant more or less all year round. It does experience a monsoon season, but all this does is provide an opportunity to take advantage of cheaper accommodation.

The best ‘recommended’ time to go is from November to April, but even if it does rain, it will be a short, sharp burst probably lasting an hour or so.

Temperatures range around 25–30C (75-90F) all year round, with humidity increasing during the Summer months.

Sri Lanka attractions

There are many jewels to explore, such as Galle, the Portuguese fortified village in the South; Kandy, the ancient capital with the Temple of the Tooth, the sacred resting place for one of the Buddha’s teeth; Colombo, the capital; the many tea plantations; elephant watching in the wild & a must is taking a train journey with all the locals. Shopping for precious and semi-precious gems and Gold Jewellery, where you can have something simple custom made in days is a must, considering the good value in getting it from the source. I would n’t recommend getting a hire car as the island is well served by both the train, which is an experience, as well as local taxis & Tuk-tuks. I gave up my seat once for an elderly woman & was met with bewildered stares & many giggles by most on the train!

Wadduwa

Stuart, Jacqueline & Amelie went to Sri Lanka in March 2015.