Wild spice worth its weight in gold | Daily News

Wild spice worth its weight in gold

Escape to the wilds of Mirissa Hills to experience cinnamon and all its healing powers
Escape to the wilds of Mirissa Hills to experience cinnamon and all its healing powers

Feel the magic from the moment you weave your way up to the heady heights of the magnificent Mirissa Hills bungalow, where you can indulge in amazing experiences such as learning about the history of cinnamon on the fascinating Mount Cinnamon tour, which is included in your stay.

Here you can bask in the sun in one of the two beautifully situated pools and be at one with nature or learn more about this wild spice, which has once again became so important to the world, while also discovering the amazing health benefits of white tea from the notorious writer and plantation owner Herman Gunaratne. A man described by those who know him as a cross between Indiana Jones looking for the islands lost gold and the Blues Brothers, because everyday in his wonderful company is an exciting adventure.

Read the Trip Advisers and reviews of the the many previous guests who’ve been on a guided walk through the wonderfully wild jungle of this stunning estate, upon a magnificent hill with views of the ocean on one side where the largest gathering of whales in the world occurs and on the other side enjoy the majesty of the forest, which is home to so many of the countries most valuable medicinal plants. Here beneath the canopy, the proud owner of around 60 acres of the world’s finest cinnamon trees (cinnamomum verum) was discovered. This is how it was for Miles Young, the CEO of Olgivy & Mater, and currently the Warden of New College, Oxford, when he realised his long held dream of owning a slice of ‘real paradise’, and what better icing on the cake, than to have a plantation of a spice with such an illustrious history?

Stories of cinnamon go back nearly 5,000 years and it seems to appear everywhere that’s anywhere in the world over the course of history. It is one of the chief reasons the Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka, and the Dutch were more than happy to be taking it over from them later, as were the British, though by then, its popularity had waned in the face of competition with coffee, then tea.The Chinese called it Kwai, while Moses used it to make holy anointing oil and the Egyptians for embalming their mummies. The Romans used it for their funerals and as a gift for the gods, while Herodotus recounts stories of how “giant ‘cinnamon birds’ collected the cinnamon sticks from an unknown land where the cinnamon trees grew and used them to construct their nests”. Then we have Pliny the Elder writing of how it made an exquisite flavouring in wine, and how 1/3 kg of it, was equivalent to 50 month’s of labour. One Dutch captain is reported as saying, “and it is the best in all the Orient. When one is downwind of the island, one can still smell cinnamon eight leagues out to sea.” During the 1500s, the Spanish sponsored Ferdinand Magellan, who’s crew was the first to circumnavigate the globe (he died, leaving Sir Francis Drake to be the first skipper to do so) found Cinnamomum mindanaense in the Philippines, a close relative of competitor Cinnamomum zeylanicum (derived from the island’s name of the time, Ceylon), found and governed by the Portuguese at the same time, in Sri Lanka.

Walking serenely across the lawn at the top of Mt Cinnamon, sipping an aromatic cup of cinnamon tea, you can get a 360 degree view of distant stunning countryside and the Indian Ocean, while waiting for your cinnamon tour with the plantations expert. Sri Lanka’s cinnamon is undisputedly the best in the world, much superior to the cassia variety grown in other countries, which is not ‘true’ cinnamon. It has to be grown in a hot climate like the ‘low’ country of Sri Lanka, yet is not susceptible to any insects, fungi or leaf diseases, such that it is naturally organic.

Although the mother trees can grow to 25 feet tall, an average of four 10-foot saplings grow out of a prominent crown base, which are pollarded at 10 feet to keep them ideally suited for producing cinnamon. Dig your nails into the bark to really enjoy the rich sweet smell of the cinnamon in the layer underneath and to determine how soft the bark is, which indicates if it is ready to harvest. These trees are highly productive, needing to be replaced only after around 40 years, but you must wait five years from planting the little black seeds in the nursery and then outside, before you can start harvesting. Mature saplings produce waxy lush leaves that are great for oil and can be used in medicine, as well as for massages, in candles and even for toothache. Did you know that half a tea spoon of cinnamon powder sprinkled on honeyed toast, eaten thrice weekly, is greatly beneficial for cholesterol reduction and preventing diabetes? Even if it is not effective for you, what a delectable prescription! Alternatively, you can mix it with lime juice to reduce bloating.

Next up is the Processing House, where you’ll be shown the worker’s quarters; 15 are needed to harvest the crop for the most part from August through October, though smaller quantities can be harvested at other times. While sitting cross-legged on the processing floor, surrounded by an impressive array of tools like peelers, small choppers, a brass rubbing rod (to facilitate peeling) and a few other curious looking tools, you will be able to try your hand at each in turn and learn how to rub, peel and strip the most wonderful smelling sticks. Rubbing the sticks with the brass rod is the easiest job but, for a challenge, try peeling and stripping; it’s quite a different story. You will feel like a gorilla sharpening toothpicks with a meat cleaver, compared to the highly skilled workers.

Besides learning about cinnamon husbandry, your senses are also delighted by the other trees, bird noises and a multitude of animals in this rich forested area, such as the Honey Butterfly, gracefully gliding here and there, and the occasional Hibiscus flowers that glow a brilliant red, and are great for stabilising blood pressure. The place is full of natural wonders like the stately peacock, browsing amongst the rows, nodding its head and occasionally issuing forth its unmistakeable strangulated two-tone screech, as it explores the undergrowth, and the brilliant chameleon strutting slowly from side to side, like a henchman, across the road and up a tree, donning a vibrant green skin with blots of red that blends it in with the leaves.

The Cinnamon Museum has intricate metal sculptures and old tools on view and one elaborate machine with belts, cogs, and rotors is particularly arresting to see; however, it is simply for hollowing out coconuts. Upstairs you find the plantation’s chief protector, the mythical Cinnamologus, ready to pounce and envelope any trespassers within its metal wings. The tour ends with a cinnamon rice and curry lunch washed down with a glass of cinnamon flavoured juice to bring the tour to a delicious end or you can stay a night or two there if you don’t mind the Cinnamologus for company. Or book the bungalow at the top with a gorgeous view of the plantation to cap the most magnificent Mirissa Hills experience.

Mirissa Hills majestic accommodation was designed by one of the islands top architects Anjalendran, who followed the fire flys to decide on where the main house should be built. He works alone on his designs but liaises closely with the building teams to bring them to life. He is a great believer in ‘holistic architecture’ being integral to every aspect of the design, including the landscaping, the furniture and even the decorations with an art collection, from the very beginning to the final handover. This spirited genius of modern times, imbues his designs with simple directness and an appreciation of the rich traditions specific to Sri Lanka. “I build around trees as I believe in functionality; a tree provides natural air-conditioning. It does’nt guzzle energy and also adds great and unique character to a design.” Anjalendran

Then, to complete your natural cultural education, you absolutely must do the Handunagoda white tea tour with Herman Guneratne, the enigmatic planter extraordinaire, with not just one dark horse, but many at his beck and call. He will walk and talk you through the most unique White Tea plantation in the world; a tea uniquely produced and the talk of Mariage Frères in Paris, just one of the worlds top tea shops offering it to their extremely discerning customers. What’s the secret? Find out from Herman who includes in your stay at Mrissa Hills a wonderful curated tour which includes how he made the islands most sort after tea with 98 year old virgins, Chinese emperors and white gloves, to give you an idea are all part of this epic story. Don’t miss his tea tasting experience at the end where you will get to taste around 50 teas in an ingenious way in a beautifully decked out museum shop focusing on the human story of tea. Also a creator of best selling books his firm favourite to accompany them is his Suicide Club tea, which is named after his epic and highly amusing book about his ‘riches to rags to riches’ story from wealthy plantation owner’s nephew, to tea plucker, to highly esteemed manager of the greatest Sri Lankan plantations. You will also get to see his other books, not least of which ‘God’s Secret Agent & the Battle Against The Dark Forces’ will show you the wild and dark side of Sri Lanka, almost unknown to the outside world of curses. This is a truly an extraordinary tour with an even more extraordinary man.

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