In the Southern lowlands of Sri Lanka, the air is different. When you breathe it in, it’s as if you are the first person to ever do so. Indeed, if you can ever describe air as having a remoteness, then this is it. Likely because the lowlands were effectively isolated from the mainland for centuries. So the air is different. It’s consumed by unique plants and animals, such as the jungle shrew. It gives life to a biodiversity that can be found nowhere else.
As the tree frogs sing to each other in the warm evenings, the air hangs around. It manages the beguiling magic trick of smelling fresh…yet also carrying with it a whiff of centuries and all that has gone before.
Beneath this musical show, we find the village of Kotapola and a single tea garden. During the day, it basks in the warm sunshine. At night, the temperature drops and moisture refreshes the garden, as the cool mist descends and sets.
When monsoon rains come, that refreshment is all the more forceful yet still to be enjoyed. The gusting winds from the highlands also bring relief from the intense heat. But even when the rain and mist are nowhere to be found, refreshment is still there in the form of crystal clear water from the streams and mountain springs.
As the season’s change, the garden grows. There really is nothing to stop it.
No chemicals, no artificial fertilisers or anything else man-made that has the intention of trying to hasten nature.
Because here nature is left to run its course. It is unhurried and happens as intended, rather than by the force of humans. It is here where nature remains in control and is to be revered, rather than manipulated for financial gain but environmental loss.
It’s an approach that sits at the centre of the Kaley Tea Estate, who harvest tea from this wonderful garden oasis.
The only fertiliser comes from free ranging animals, part of the natural life cycle of earth.
Sure, there is some interference. But it’s only the positive kind. Three kilometres of stone terracing has been carefully constructed to help minimise soil erosion. This supporting approach to nature is extended beyond the stone terracing and into the immediate area also.
The Kaley Estate actively protects over 10 hectares of forest, planting over 400 forest tree saplings and in excess of 2000 high nitrogen trees for added natural fertilisation. Those natural streams and springs are cared for, treated with the respect you’d expect from the essence of life that they carry.
Rainwater is used for irrigation (20 millions litres has been harvested already, with plans for another 10 million) for the garden and also to assist in taking that precious water to the abundant biodiversity in the immediate area. This approach highlights an understanding of what makes the tea from the single garden so special.
The flavour comes from not just the tea plant but everything in the local vicinity. It is all interlinked and finely balanced. A balance that can be tasted in every single cup and every variety produced.
As to the tea itself, the Kaley Tea ‘Ceylon 7 Spice Tea’ incorporates a curated blend of spices. But it’s not just mixed together to produce the taste. This is artisan tea at its finest, the process of hand-picking and hand-plucking more art than science.
Production is almost ritualistic, the 7 spices sequentially added into a slow rolled whole leaf that is fermented and fired.
The result is a tea with a dense yet smooth taste. Each sip is a little different. First there is chocolate. Maybe some cinnamon. Then pepper. Cloves, nutmeg, ginger and lemongrass. The complex flavours take the senses on a journey, each spice telling its own story of sail ships long gone, carrying exotic Ceylon spices to the Western world.
The Kaley Tea Estate is also famous for their white tea. There is magic in how greenish black needles with white hues turn coppery white during infusion. It’s potion-like quality is befitting of romance and lovers. The subtle freshness of peachy, melon flavours with just a hint of honey finish. This is a tea to be sipped at leisure, under the shade of a tree.
A tea to be sipped and savoured as you enjoy the comforting silence of sitting with someone whose company does not need words.
This for those moments where you lose yourself in that curious mixture of time, place and person, that golden trinity which gives rise to the very best memories.
Indeed, if there is a thread that weaves its way through the Kaley Tea Estate it might be said to be made of romance. Not necessarily the romance that needs two people but rather the type which exists between a person and life in general. The simple romance of sitting in the midday sun, laying on the grass with a hat partially covering your head as you inhale the moment.
When you close your eyes, the sounds you hear might be those of the ladies plucking the tea leaves. They start at 7.30am in the morning and work through to just after that midday sun starts to burn itself into the lowlands. Kaley Tea takes an approach to the workforce that is not dissimilar to the one they take on nature. It is of nurturing and support.
The workers are paid well above the legal minimum and market rates. Housing is provided and food is supplied at a subsidised rate. There are even interest free loans available for workers who wish to purchase assets. The children of workers benefit from lessons organised and funded by Kaley.
This good work is the reason Kaley Tea Estate exists. They are driven by the vision of creating a model that benefits all villagers and can then be extended to other villages.
It’s about giving back and improving the lives of those involved. Then involving more people, not to grow the business but to improve more lives.
The tea is simply a conduit for real change.
When you sit back to drink a cup of Kaley Tea this is what hits you at the same time as the taste. It’s a taste that releases the charm of a place and people that are striving to live life a better way. We think that something very much worth raising a cup too.