Calling all virgins – it’s time for White Tea! | Daily News

Calling all virgins – it’s time for White Tea!

Glorious white tea
Glorious white tea

That is easy, for in this mysterious teardrop island in the middle of the Indian Ocean with some 7,000 miles of open ocean to its south, there lies Handunagoda, perhaps the most southern and coastal of plantations. Meet Herman Gunaratne, the owner and manager with a lifetime of rich experience, lives by such initiatives as ‘teas without tears,’ demonstrating his commitment to his staff and recognition that they are the key to the on-going success of this wonderful business. He started his life as a plucker, working his way through the ranks at a number of different estates, to become manager of the most prestigious plantations, a grand master of the tea industry if you like. He has seen and done it all, including things you would not believe.

Nationalisation

On our way up the hill from the entrance we pass a putting green, “This is so I can beat my grandchildren at golf,” Gunaratne says with a smile, explaining that they can hit the ball too far for him on a golf course but are no match for him on the putting green. This is perhaps a prelude to the story he now tells about running his 200 acre estate that was once 2,200 acres and how one must look for the niche advantage when faced with much larger competition.

Herman will show you many tea bushes and talk you through the many challenges of good tea husbandry, from the optimum time to pluck the tea, through to the finely nuanced withering, rolling and fermenting processes. Ever concerned with giving credit where its due, especially when it comes to the important job of plucking and the unjust stigma associated with pluckers, he says, “We owe a great debt of gratitude to the Tamil workers who have been the backbone of this great industry, plucking around an acre a day each over the centuries.” He then shows us the little succulent leaves that are ready to be plucked and the order in which the growing shoots are plucked to maintain the quality of tea and longevity of the bushes, which he says will generally last for 30 years but can, in some cases, such as with a seven acre plantation near Kandy, last for 150 years. However, such is the fertility of his lowland plantation, Gunaratne reckons to get the equivalent of 100 years highland/medium land production in 30 years.

Gunaratne’s Handunugoda estate is 200 acres but he explains to us and in his book The Suicide Club,how it was once 2,200 acres before nationalisation saw the government taking 1,000 acres and a rather risky bet on the part of his grandfather saw another 1,000 acres going west at his grand gambling club nicknamed the Suicide Club, of which he was the president at the time. Gunaratne is particularly fond of the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling, as it has helped him come to terms with what his grandfather did:

“If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

….You’ll be a Man, my son.”

The not-so-healthy habits

When asked what makes his white tea unique, Gunaratne tells you, in inimitable style, a great story about the Chinese emperor of an ancient dynasty and how he would be given, as a tribute to his lofty position, tea that was untouched by human hands and plucked by virgins with golden scissors. Realising that getting proof of such plucker credentials would be tough and that there was no obvious benefit from untouched tea, Gunaratne wanted more to the story and his diligent search was rewarded with another remarkable tale about a perfume maker he met in Drasse, France, who sourced jasmine flowers from 12 different countries and who could identify each country by the sweat on the hands of the flower pickers. The third and final major point about his Virgin White tea is that it has the highest naturally occurring content of immunity boosting antioxidants of any beverage, at 10.11%.

It is clear Gunaratne drinks a great deal of his own products, maybe 20 cups a day and who wouldn’t, but the secret to his exceptional health is also in his lifestyle: though a lover of some of the not-so-healthy habits, too, he has a strict routine of getting up at 4.30 am (even after the launch of his latest book where he was up until very late drinking with the best of them), then taking a five mile walk, talking with people along the way, followed by the business of the day and a five mile walk at the end before bed at 8.30 pm, unless invited out, of course.

As we move into the factory, the aroma of wilting and fermenting tea wafts about, reminding me of bonfires and exotic sweet smells that enhanced my youth. The wilting process seems simple enough, withering through ventilation that reduces the weight by half, but when we move into the next area we find the most extraordinary looking machines, which were seriously made to last back in the days of the industrial revolution.

Beautifully decorated

The Rolling machine was a wonderful 150 year old hunk of gyrating thick metal doing a finely nuanced job of rolling but not ripping or crushing the tea – sadly no virgin Cuban thighs rolling the tea here, it would take too long and be too distracting. The even bigger and older Sirocco machine from Belfast, Ireland, named Endless Chain Pressure Drier had so far lived up to its name with its staggering record of having operated for around 6 hours every single day for the last 160 years! They don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Gunaratne, despite his very busy life, has written five books, mostly centring around the tea industry but his latest offering, God’s Secret Agent, is as unique as his Virgin White tea and will have you mesmerised with its Blues Brothers type storyline involving the battles between the powers of darkness in Sri Lanka and a Buddhist exorcist and his mate, casting out demons with Christ and the Holy Spirit and digging up buried evil-charmed bottles all over the island, sometimes to help out presidents and prime ministers.

At the end of this magnificent tour, we walked into the shop, something I usually find tricky as, normally, I have children in tow who want to be spoiled but more often because I don’t usually like to buy things before researching and meditating about them first. This is different as you are treated to a beautifully decorated room with about 50 teas to taste in an ingenious way. You are given a spoon to dip into teacups with the teas and put in your small tasting cup and left to your own devices, to taste teas to your heart’s content without contaminating them – please don’t lick the spoon! It was a delicious experience, even without the tour, and I really got to realise the breadth and diversity of tea – it really is a whole world in itself. Each tea is named and described and you are left unhurried to get on with it. I tasted every single tea and what a joy. I was slightly embarrassed to admit that my favourite was the Suicide Club tea, as I felt this must be a bit of a gimmick, but later I learned it was a bestseller, like the book, and had been blended by, Gunaratne with a cheeky addition of cognac.


 

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