Malik J. Fernando | DILMAH TEA DIRECTOR
“Ceylon tea has been the lifeblood of Sri Lanka”
In search of a Sri Lankan guide, we looked to its famous Ceylon tea plantations. Malik Fernando is a pioneer in tea tourism. He is creator of Ceylon Tea Trails, a chain offering small, luxury accommodation in the historical plantation buildings.
Text: Guadalupe Rodríguez | Photos: Kreativa Visual | Video: Kreativa Visual
What was it like for you growing up in a family dedicated to tea? Did you consider having any other professions?
Growing up in a family that has tea flowing through its veins has been, at the very least, interesting. My father, Merril, who is 85 years old, is the oldest active tea taster in the world, as far as I know. It is the only profession I have ever considered following and I hope my children will feel the same.
How important is the tea industry in Sri Lanka?
Tea is a unique part of Sri Lanka. It has been the lifeblood of this country and played a key role in its development. This industry has created true wealth, leading to the creation of banks, insurers and ports to export it. It was the leading industry until about 15 or 20 years ago, when other sectors started to develop, primarily textiles. Four million people depend on tea to survive, which represents 20% of the population of the country.
Why is the island's tea so popular?
Because of the climate. The monsoons in the southwest and northeast are what give the tea its primary characteristics. As with wine, [the terroir affects the tea: its flavour and style changes dramatically from one plantation to the next.] Why is it so unique? Because of its singular flavour: acidic and sweet. Tea from other countries is characterised by its colour, body or strength, but the unique flavour of Ceylon tea is very difficult to imitate. That is why it is so famous. We still call it by the same name as the country had until 1972, because that is how it has been promoted worldwide, since the twenties.
How is the tea produced and manufactured?
The process is largely performed by hand. We use machinery that is a hundred years old, but, primarily, the work is manual. First, the leaves from each field are harvested by hand, every five or seven days, but only the last ones that have grown at the top of the plant. Next, they are dried with hot air for twelve hours. After that, they are rolled, so fermentation can commence. The process ends by drying them until the texture we are all familiar with is achieved. Finally, they are classified according to the size of the leaves, then packaged and sent out to the entire world. In total, the process takes about 20 hours.
Your company has a hotel on the plantation. Does tea tourism exist?
Tea tourism is very important. With Ceylon Tea Trails, we have been pioneers. We open up the estates to tourists from the world over who want to discover ‘Tea Country’ and stay at a plantation, instead of at a hotel. They can meet local people, learn about the tea-making process and go on bike rides. It is unique. In 2004, we refurbished four of the original two-storey villas from the British plantation, to make them into luxury accommodation. This year we opened Dunkeld, a twenties villa that we have made into a luxury hotel, with 26 bedrooms. It belongs to the prestigious French chain Relais & Châteaux.
Which places related to the history of tea and its production would you recommend visiting?
I would recommend exploring all four tea-producing regions in Sri Lanka: the south coast; Ratnapura, famous for its precious gems; the central mountains, where Tea Trails is located; and Nuwara Eliya, the highest production area, at an altitude of 1,200 metres. Around Colombo, there are also several fashionable tea lounges, popular with the younger crowd. The tea auction is held on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. It is quite impressive, but you have to get a special permit. You can also visit tea factories, like the one at Dilmah. Tasting the tea at tea lounges and with Sri Lankan cuisine and discovering its production process and where it is grown are some of the tea-related experiences tourists can enjoy.
Is the natural heritage of the country particularly rich?
Nature has been kind to us. What is important is that the country has not changed much and it is still immaculate and welcoming. I would say it is a very beautiful country, with numerous areas of ecological value, from ‘Tea Country’ to the beaches along the coast and, the best of all, the tropical beaches in the south. The centre is home to the ruins of the old cities and national parks, where you can find lions and elephants. We are truly blessed by nature.
What are Sri Lankans like?
Tourists agree that it is a beautiful country, but the most important element is how friendly its people are. I think this is its most outstanding feature.
What recommendations would you give to a foreign visitor coming to the country for the first time?
Sri Lanka is like six countries in one. The first place you have to visit is the Cultural Triangle, around Sigiriya, with the ruins of the old cities. Next, ‘Tea Country’ and the beaches to the south. These three areas are unmissable. If you have more time, then visit the beaches on the east coast.
What is Sri Lankan food like?
Our cuisine is very hot, but not like in India and less well known. The most traditional dish is ‘pol sambola’, a very spicy recipe using coconut, turmeric, cinnamon and nutmeg. There is also a wide variety of breads (rotis), crepes (appa) and vegetable curries. It is a delicious surprise for people visiting us for the first time.
Which dish would you pair with a cup of tea?
For classic Ceylon tea, I would choose kottu roti, a mixture of roti bread, vegetables, chicken and spices. It is a classic evening street food. The astringency of the tea cleans the palate after every bite. A perfect combination.