When learning about tea I was sent to Westhall estate in Nawalapitiya to learn the field practices from a very senior planter. He and his wife hosted me at their bungalow – I was their creeper* – for a short period of time. This was my first taste of plantation life and I was lucky and grateful to experience it with them. I was not the only new arrival at the bungalow that weekend. Their Appu (plantation chef) of many years had suffered a heart attack and was on leave. He had recommended a competent friend, Velu, to fill his position.
Appu Velu’s first day was also my first day at the bungalow. Waking up early I was greeted by the new Appu who brought me tea in bed. After a quick shower and shave I did my first field round with an experienced field officer and came back to the bungalow. I was used to having breakfast before leaving the house and hurried back to the bungalow to feed my hunger.
At breakfast the planter’s wife greeted me and asked what I would like. I’m not a fussy eater and took her suggestion of an omelette. Signaling to the Appu that I would like an omelette, she asked him whether he knew how to make one. “Yes. Yes, Madam,” came the reply. She gave a list of ingredients that should be put in the omelette and the Appu hurried away to make it. While sitting down and talking about life on the estates and the creepers she had seen over time, my omelette arrived.
I took a quick glance at it . The ingredients had been mixed together but not cooked. I realized that the Appu had never before made an omelette. Nervously shuffling about, I wondered what to do. On one hand, I could gulp the mixture down and possibly suffer the effects of salmonella, or I could politely let her know that her new Appu was not sure how to make an omelette.
I went with the second option by slowly pointing to the uncooked omelette. On seeing it, her eyes shot open, she jumped out of her chair, grabbed my raw egg and strode off to give the Appu a lecture. Soon she returned with a cooked omelette; we laughed and I hurried back to the field to learn about tea.
If the omelette was any indication, I knew I was in for more surprising events while staying there. We soon learned that the Appu didn’t hear too well and leaving him in charge of running the house became very tricky. He knew how to prepare just one meal. By the end of my stay, my hosts had had enough of the same food every night and we all were quite sick of eating jelly. Everyone – including the rest of the bungalow staff – was eagerly waiting their previous Appu’s return to work.
Most consumers are unaware of the human toil that goes into making a cup of tea. Plantations around the world are staffed by people, each with their own unique stories and experiences. This is what makes each cup of tea that is grown from the same bush different from the other. And this is why seeking single estate teas is the purist and most interesting for a tea drinker.
Every sip you take from a PMD single estate tea is the story of the many plantation workers who have put their heart and soul into creating your cup. Albeit with a little more skill than Appu Velu and my omelette.
*a creeper is employed at a tea estate to “latch onto the boss,” living in her/his home and learning the business of tea in every aspect.