International Tea Day
International Tea Day is on May 21st, as designated by the United Nations. It is a chance to celebrate the cultural heritage, health benefits and economic importance of tea.
The origins of tea go back thousands of years, but it is still popular across the world today. It is grown in more than 35 countries and millions of people rely on the tea industry for their livelihoods.
Tea in Sri Lanka
You can’t really visit Sri Lnka without visiting the tea plantations where it all began more than 200 years ago, during the days of the Raj. We British acquired a taste for our favourite brew which has never really flagged, despite stiff competition from the coffee bean.
To get to the actual tea plantations is however, easier said than done. Situated on cleared jungle slopes high up in the interior mountains, the tea bushes are set out in thousands of the neatest ordered rows. They have a formality which seems incongruous in the middle of the untamed jungle.
Tea leaves are still picked by hand largely by Tamil workers. Tamils are the poorest ethnic group from the northern province of Sri Lanka. Pickers carry bags on their backs as they pick, in a way that hasn’t changed in a century. I’d grown up in the UK with that familiar picture on the PG Tips box of the lady picking tea – well her grand daughter is probably still doing the same job today.
The Tea factory
Making tea remains only a partially mechanised process. The tea factories were built right next to the tea plantations. Many of the factories continue to working just as they did over a hundred years ago. They were all built to an original blueprint created during the industrial revolution. Different tea processes happen on different floors just like the mills back in Olde England.
The ancient machinery is still kept in perfect working order. The only more modern addition is an optical separater, which selects the leaves by colour. The tea leaves are piled onto the grinding machine where they are rolled and then dried. On the wall is the timetable for the ‘rolling programme.’ This phrase has passed into common management consultant speak, probably without the faintest idea of its true origins.
Types of tea
The different types of tea are basically different grades of the same leaf. The finest is Orange Pekoe. At the other end of the tea quality spectrum is ‘Dust No 1.’ This is the grade of tea we usually end up with in many of our tea bags back home.
International Tea Day reminds us that world of tea is an important part of our daily lives. It is also an integral part of the English language. We have tea pots, tea cups, tea tables, tea towels, tea trays, tea time, tea breaks, tea spoons, tea cakes, tea roses and tea lights. We can go to a tea dance or be tea total. If unlucky, we can have our stuff stolen by a tea leaf.
Excuse me while I just pop off to put the kettle on…