Friday, March 28, 2014

How Much Tea?


How much tea can a tea plucker pluck?
Since I was in Ceylon, the land of tea and tea plantation, I thought I’d find out. The hard way – I’d do it myself.
Handunugoda Tea Factory, located in Tittagalla, south of Galle, has two unique distinctions: it produces the world’s most expensive tea, white tea, and it’s the closest plantation to the sea, both in Sri Lanka and possibly in the world.
It also lets tourists pick tealeaves.
The morning sky was a low, gray blanket. It wasn’t going to rain, but the scorching sun was giving me a break. I could pick tealeaves without worry of heatstroke. I only had to worry about the snakes.
‘There are snakes, of course,’ said tea planter Malinga H. Gunaratne. He laughed as he took a long slow drag on a cigarette. ‘But don’t worry, they don’t bite hard.’
Oh great.
‘Well, shall we begin?’ I asked, mustering up my courage.
Tea picking is technically not a difficult task. The top three leaves of each branch, plus the fresh tip is the target. A good pinch and a twist will snap them from the mother plant. I watched the pickers at work and tried to mimic them. They had rhythm. Twist, snap, pull. Twist, snap, pull. Once they had a handful of leaves they would reach back open their hands over their brightly colored plastic tea baskets (not the woven baskets of the high-country tea plantations). The green leaves fluttered down into the net lining of the basket. Twist, snap, pull. Twist, snap, pull. They never broke their rhythm, unless it was to laugh at my clumsy attempts to find and pick the best leaves.

The morning had grown hot. The sun dipped in and out of the clouds. Watching for snakes, I moved from one tea plant to another – not an easy task. The plants’ branches, strong wooden tentacles, grabbed my hips and stopped me dead in my tracks. I had to bully my way through. A good head and shoulders taller than the petite tea pickers, I wondered how they stood it day after day in the hot sun, picking up to four baskets (20kilos of leaves), which amounts to four kilos of drinkable black tea. Rather than go bare headed like I did, most wrapped their heads in a kongahni, a large cloth that protects them from the scorching sun. After only an hour, my back ached from reaching across the tea plants and my picking outfit, a shite shirt and green sarong, was drenched in sweat. I was a wreck, ready for a cup of tea and a nap!
But my job wasn’t finished. I still had the fancy tea to pick.
Gunaratne’s 200-acre sea-level plantation, a family affair for the past 125 years and dotted with coconut palms and rubber trees, is becoming known for its off-the-charts expensive Handunugoda White Tea. White Tea was first produced in the Fujian Providence in China during the Song dynasty (610-907 AD) as a tribute to Emperor Hui Zhong.

Only the tender tips of the Camellia sinensis plant, which are covered with fine, white hairs, are clipped. During a trip to a perfumery in France, Gunaratne learned that perspiration from the flower pickers’ hands would change the flavors. To keep the flavor of his White Tea intact, he reverted to the ancient custom of picking the tea plant’s tender tips with sterile scissors and gloved hands - all meant to keep the tiny tips devoid of human contact.

What are the differences between White Tea and Green and Black Teas?

Processing:
The highly prized tips are processed immediately after picking. They are withered -- a procedure that dries the leaves by either steam, hot air, or simply air-dried. This withering takes 1-2 days, depending on weather conditions. After that, the tips go through a period of sun drying and later they are subjected to another process, which the producers want to keep secret.

Both White and Green undergo little processing and no fermentation. Black Tea, on the other hand, gets fully fermented.

Taste:
There’s a noticeable difference in taste: Black Tea has a heavy liquoring taste,
Green Teas a ‘grassy’ taste, and White Tea has a light, delicate, almost silky taste. “To use milk or sugar with White Tea,” says Gunaratne, “is sacrilegious!”

Yield:
Slow going, a picker’s daily yield of White Tea is only 300-400 grams, which calculates down to 100 grams, or about 93 cups, of drinkable tea. At $19 USD for 15 grams (14 cups), White Tea is the most expensive Ceylon has to offer. According to Gunaratne, his plantation produces 100 kilos of White Tea per year. Ceylon’s total annual tonnage of all teas combined is 360 million kilos. China, India and Japan also produce White Tea.

Health Benefits:
You can’t talk about White Tea without talking about its health benefits. It is low in caffeine (only 15mg. per serving vs. 40mg. in Black Tea, and 20mg in Green Tea) and rich in antioxidants. A 2004 study at Pace University in USA concluded that White Tea contains more polyphenol, the anti-oxidant that fights cancer-causing cells, and is high in fluoride, which helps prevent dental plaque, the main source of tooth decay. Milton Schiffenbauer, PhD, a microbiologist and professor in the Department of Biology at Pace University states in Science Daily that White Tea Extract “can actually destroy the organisms that cause disease. Study after study with tea extract proves that it has many healing properties. This is not an old wives tale, it’s a fact.”

Back Into the Fields:
Readied to go back into the field to pick the White Tea buds, I was suited in a clean white shirt and sarong with a chef’s-style hat, given sterile scissors and gloves, which, as the perfumer said, would keep my body oils from tainting the tea’s delicate flavor.

I found picking White Tea even more taxing than Black Tea, as it was a slow process of finding the buds and then snipping them into the bowl. Heaven forbid that I drop the bowl of white gold, as I had come to think of it. By now the sun was high overhead and beginning to bake us pickers. Although I couldn’t understand a word the other women were speaking - they spoke Tamil - I could tell they weren’t complaining, but carrying on the hard work in good humour. They certainly got a kick out of me and my bad rhythm and slow movements.

How much tea did this tea plucker pluck? Enough for only one cup of tea, but I left the charming plantation feeling pleasantly exhausted, with a kilo of Handunugoda Tea Factory’s finest Black Tea tucked under my arm along with a small, precious box of White Tea. After experiencing firsthand just how difficult the art of plucking tea is, I knew my next cup of tea would be all that much sweeter – even without any sacrilegious sugar.

Handunugoda Tea Factory fields.

Tea picker wearing a kongahni.

Me, working away!

The other ladies laughed over my tea plucking abilities!

Tender tea shoots.

Using scissors to cut the very top
leaves for the white tea.

The ladies loved having their photo taken!

Like my outfit?

Shoots for white tea.

Me, hot and sweaty after picking. Look how cool
the other ladies look!

An expensive pile of white tea.

To contact Handunugoa Tea Factory you can friend Malinga Herman Gunaratne on FaceBook.

Check out my Sri Lankan wedding photography, travel photography, portrait photography, female photographers, commercial photography at my website at: http://www.shadetreeSL.com
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