You may think I write too much about the scenery,’ suggested James Taylor in a letter home to Scotland, ‘but if you could see it for yourself, you would understand why I write so.’ The pioneer of Ceylon Tea was describing the views from his estate, Loolecondera, and the surrounding Hewaheta countryside. Since arriving there in 1851, he had left only once, on a visit to Darjeeling to study tea cultivation there. Such was his love for the region that he would spend the rest of his life in the Kandyan hills, and be buried among them when he died.
Kandy, then, is the tea-growing district where it all began. Formerly the last redoubt of the Sinhalese kings, it is accessible only via steep mountain passes, which created a formidable obstacle to invasion in the days when there were no roads and the hillsides were covered in thick forest. Such inaccessibility helped the kings of Kandy resist foreign invaders for more than three hundred years. In its temples and monastic libraries, its arts and crafts and folkways, Kandy preserved for centuries the cultural traditions of the Sinhalese people. It was also an important centre of Buddhism: the Buddha’s teachings were first put into writing at Aluvihare near Matale, and the holiest relic of the faith, a tooth reputed to be that of the Master himself, was preserved in a golden casket at a temple in the capital. Its possession is said to grant legitimacy to the rulers of Lanka, so when the kingdom of Kandy passed into the hands of the British in 1815, the latter were careful to protect the sacred tooth and continue the rituals, such as the famous perahera, associated with it. They continue to this day.
The fall of Kandy opened up the whole of Sri Lanka’s hill country to the British. The capital of the kingdom, which they also named Kandy, soon became the metropolis of the region. When the coffee enterprise began soon after, it was natural that the first estates should be established in close proximity to this ‘hill capital’ – and the recently-established botanical gardens and research centre at Peradeniya. The same went for tea: Loolecondera, like all the early tea estates, was originally a coffee plantation, though far from being the first.
The Kandy tea-growing district forms part of the Central Province of Sri Lanka. Though its capital nestles in a relatively low-lying valley, the estates themselves are dotted about the surrounding hills – in Nilambe, Hantane, Pussellawa, Gampola and, of course, Hewaheta. They are not as high up as those in the southern part of the central massif, so the tea of the Kandy region is described as ‘mid-grown’, the altitude of cultivation ranging between 650m and 1,300m (2,000-4,000ft).
The local weather is influenced largely by the southwest monsoon system, the winds blowing in force up the mountain passes, though Kandy itself is relatively sheltered. Many of the estates, too, are clustered in valleys where the wind is less fierce, and the tea they produce are stronger and deeper-coloured than the rest of the region’s produce.
Tasters’ Notes for Kandy Tea
KANDY -“Intensely full-bodied”
In the Kandy district, where the industry began in 1867, the teas produced are described as “mid-grown”as cultivation does not exceed 1,300m(4000 Feet). They range in flavour depending on the altitude and whether the plantation is sheltered from monsoon winds. All are particularly flavoursome. Kandy teas produce a bright infusion with a coppery tone, and are strong and intensely full-bodied.
Kandy teas tend to produce a relatively bright infusion with a coppery tone. Though lighter in the cup, they present a good deal of strength and body, though not as much as the lower-grown products of Sabaragamuwa and Ruhuna. Most Kandy-district estates lie on the western slopes of the hills, so their taste is influenced by the ‘western quality season’, meaning that the best tea is produced during the first quarter of the year, when cool, dry weather sets in across the district.