A culi­nary jour­ney

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Food & Drink - By Su­mayya Us­mani

AQUICK flight away from my home city, a beau­ti­ful paradise within reach and a place many of our ship voy­ages took us, Sri Lanka is the un­sung hero of South-East Asia. The first thing that strikes you about this coun­try is the friend­li­ness, hu­mil­ity and the level of ed­u­ca­tion, which is stag­ger­ing for a de­vel­op­ing coun­try.

As a child I loved vis­it­ing Colombo – the food was in­cred­i­ble, laced with fresh co­conut oil, co­conut milk and an ex­otic mix of In­dian and South-East Asian flavours, and even as such a young age I could ap­pre­ci­ate this fu­sion of styles and flavours. As a child I was ad­dicted to fresh co­conut wa­ter and the most enor­mous cashew nuts in the world, but as I grew up, I learned to ap­pre­ci­ate that stun­ning ar­ray of spice, pro­duce and, of course, the one thing Sri Lanka (Cey­lon as it was once known) is fa­mous for – tea.

Trav­els from the city into the moun­tains and you’ll find your­self in beau­ti­ful Kandy, a hill re­sort that is lush with tea plan­ta­tions, and some of world’s best tea is grown, picked and made here. I had vis­ited Dilmah tea plan­ta­tions many years ago, and en­joyed their tea over the years but never knew much about the com­pany.

About 10 years ago, I picked up an ar­ti­cle about the man be­hind the com­pany, and was hum­bled by his story. Mer­rill Fer­nando was from a hum­ble fam­ily and worked in a tea fac­tory – he watched, as he states, how mis­ap­pro­pri­ated the word “Cey­lon tea” was, as many were blend­ing a mix of teas from else­where and sell­ing it off as pure pro­duce from Sri Lanka. Not only did he watch how the main play­ers grow rich sell­ing tea abroad, he en­dured the sight of the peo­ple pick­ing it, the lo­cals, still liv­ing in poverty and not see­ing any ben­e­fit from the tea busi­ness.

Mr Fer­nando set up the first

Sri Lankan tea com­pany to of­fer gen­uinely eth­i­cally pro­duced tea and he still sells it in­ter­na­tion­ally. He main­tains the hand-picked, hand-crafted art of mak­ing tea, shows re­spect to the peo­ple in­volved at ev­ery level of its process and al­lows them to share in the profit of his com­pany. The com­pany be­longs to the farm­ers, and the Dilmah com­pany cares for them, their fam­i­lies and cel­e­brates the au­then­tic­ity of Sin­gle Ori­gin Pure Cey­lon Tea. It is amaz­ing that 10% of the prof­its are re­tained in Sri Lanka and help fund the com­pany’s char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion and con­ser­va­tion projects.

I was re­cently in­vited to the open­ing of Dilmah’s first Tea Lounge in Glas­gow (the first of its tea lounges in the UK), and I was ac­tu­ally in­trigued as to why Glas­gow had been picked as its destination. Chat­ting to Mr Fer­nando at the open­ing, he ex­plained that if any­one looked back into his­tory, they would find that the orig­i­nal tea plant was taken to Sri Lanka in the mid-1800s by a Scots­man, called James Tay­lor. So nat­u­rally, it felt like tea was com­ing home. I was hum­bled to meet the man who has cre­ated such a big tea em­pire but not lost his hu­mil­ity and the sense of duty and pur­pose to his peo­ple and the tea work­ers of Sri Lanka.

One of the fun things about the tea lounge is that, along with a va­ri­ety of means and a won­der­ful ar­ray of teas, you can also or­der from a range of in­ven­tive tea-based cock­tails (or mock­tails). To me, it was a won­der­ful day, sam­pling the tea and other treats, meet­ing this in­cred­i­ble man – and re­liv­ing some of my childhood mem­o­ries of the tea gar­dens of Kandy.

Here is a recipe for the Tea Lounge by Dilmah Straw­berry Sour – cre­ated by Re­becka Mamer, Whisky Mist as­sis­tant man­ager.

Su­mayya Us­mani co-presents BBC Ra­dio Scot­land’s Kitchen Cafe. Her books, Sum­mers Un­der The Tamarind Tree and Moun­tain Berries And Desert Spice are out now, pub­lished by Frances Lin­coln Visit sumayyaus­mani.com Twit­ter @SumayyaUs­mani

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