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"You haven't tasted tea until you taste my dilmah."

Merrill J. Fernando

The Tea Maker


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A Centre for Hope

On 1st September we inaugurated the MJF Centre East, the most ambitious combined humanitarian and environmental project that we have ever undertaken. Amongst the projects that the MJF Foundation, and its environmental equivalent – Dilmah Conservation – have implemented, this has very special resonance and that is rooted not in the cost of the facility – even though the investment of Rs. 1.3 billion by a family owned tea business in a purely charitable initiative has its own resonance. It’s significance is linked rather with the philosophy that led to the establishment of the centre and its purpose.

Like the eleven other MJF Centres, 90 Schools and Child Development Centres established by the MJF Foundation, this is the fulfillment of a pledge made decades ago, to make Dilmah a business that is a matter of human service. Honouring the promise that my father made to his customers is not what is remarkable about this initiative, but rather the fact that it is the outcome of the efforts of a Sri Lankan tea grower, taking tea grown and packed with love in Sri Lanka to the world, framed in the knowledge that for any industry to be genuinely sustainable, it requires the engagement of community and environment and must benefit both in its progress.

My father’s motivation for making our family business a matter of human service was incredibly simple; it is what he knew to be right, and sharing the profits from his then fledgling tea business with those less privileged was a moral obligation that represented the only way he knew he should act whether in business or any other sphere of activity. He is an ordinary Sri Lankan and in his youth, daily faced the choice of buying breakfast of bun and banana at the local Sultana Bakery or using the money to pay for a train ride to school. He had no formal education beyond the Senior School Certificate he received from Maris Stella College and was armed therefore with the Christian values his parents had taught him.

Throughout his journey from the quiet village of Pallansena, being selected as one amongst the first Ceylonese to receive training in tea in London, through rising to Managing Director of A F Jones & Co., eventually starting his own business, his attitude was one of gratitude, and therefore also humility. It was always clear that success was a blessing from God, and like any blessing should be passed on and shared. Hence that philosophy of making business a matter of human service, first expressed when he started his tea business with 18 employees, and which continues today to the benefit of thousands more.

Even as ASEAN leaders concluded the Regional Session of the World Economic Forum with strong commitment to embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the architect of the concept – Prof. Klaus Schwab acknowledges that many have not even experienced the third, some not even the 2nd industrial revolution. In this reality, there is the startling truth that amidst the exponentially more awe inspiring technological advancement, many in the developing world have not even experienced glancing benefit from this progress. Without radical change in our collective effort at addressing poverty alleviation, climate change and inequality that is also unlikely to change for most of those on the periphery today.

This is where the inauguration of the MJF Centre East should have even greater resonance for business people who may subscribe more to the theory that businesses exist more to deliver ‘shareholder value’ and less to address poverty alleviation and environmental challenges. The greatest threats to every individual, business and government today are inequality and climate change, which have a direct relationship with each other, one exacerbating the effects of the other and if unchecked, leading to collective disaster. The notion of sharing the benefits of success with the less fortunate in the wider community did not have currency at the time my father first established Dilmah for it was the 1970s and business people had the excuse of an abhorrent element of the Friedman doctrine; Milton Friedman wrote that, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

Ethical business was clearly not as fashionable then as it is now, although unfortunately even today the word ‘fashion’ is uncomfortably appropriate for in many cases ethics are more about perception than about reality. Consumer demand for businesses to be socially responsible was initially met by a profusion of loudly stated good intentions, posturing and insincerity. At the time many assumed that we had an option, but what has become glaringly obvious today is the fact that the futures of the farmer in Embilipitiya, the palmyrah tapper in Mullaitivu and the businessman in Colombo are one and the same. The debilitating and ultimately destructive outcome of inequality is conflict, the consequences of unchecked climate change, whether in the wet or dry zone, are economically, socially and politically catastrophic. To add to the universality of the situation, neither climate change nor inequality can be addressed without sincere and mutually respectful partnership amongst all concerned – farmer, tapper, businessman as well as bureaucrat, politician, academic etc.

The MJF Centre East will deliver formidable humanitarian benefit to thousands of economically and socially marginalised youth, women and men in the East of Sri Lanka, it will change the lives of differently able children and train youth in coding, cuisine, design, while providing entrepreneurship development, education and also delivering positive environmental interventions, most significantly in helping farmers adapt to their changing environment. Above all these the Centre expresses acknowledgement that as Sri Lankans, as business people and as individuals, we have an irrevocable obligation to our community and our environment, and with that obligation we also have the resources and capability to assume control of our shared destiny, and strive to ensure that our future generations have the same quality of life and opportunities as we do.

The 21st Century ritual of High Tea

High Tea is as ubiquitous as tea itself, enjoyed by some for the elegance of the occasion, by others for delicious cakes and pastries that are an essential part of high tea. There is debate amongst traditionalists in social etiquette, as to what constitutes ‘high tea’- an evening meal or an occasion for taking tea in the afternoon. Amidst all this there is the unfortunate reality that whether high or afternoon, tea is at most an afterthought for most purveyors of the occasion. The concerns of nomenclature obsessives were therefore cast aside in pursuit of the much more important task of putting the tea back into high tea.

The Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge was born in Colombo in 2007. The initiative was triggered as much by the lack of authenticity amongst even the most celebrated of high teas around the world, as by our desire to define a contemporary high tea. Since then the quest has traversed the world, with a group of tea inspired Judges challenging culinary and hospitality professionals in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sri Lanka and shortly also in South America, Europe and Asia.

Emphasizing tea as the pivot, requiring sensual pairings of tea and cuisine, the use of tea as an ingredient in the sweet and savoury accompaniments to high tea whilst honouring the style of the occasion, the journey so far has been deliciously indulgent. Tea dignifies food in a very sincere way; the texture, body and flavours in tea, its ability to cleanse the palate of richness and sweet has made the quest for an authentic and contemporary high tea especially rewarding.

The modern definition of the ritual is enriched here with precise thought on the role of tea in high tea – from the warm welcome that a perfectly brewed Ran Watte tea offers through the beguiling tea inspired cocktails and even the dessert teas, and then what food would harmoniously complement each. The challenge is to understand tea and its myriad tastes and aromas, and interpret these with respect and creativity without compromising authenticity.

Thus far the result has been beyond expectation. Experiencing tea for the first time with an emphasis on the aromas, flavours, mouthfeel and the sensual harmony of these offered in combination with the healing properties in tea has ground breaking in every sense. In honouring authenticity in tea, and luxury of terroir in tea, the innovation in Real High Tea has been genuine, very different to the cosmetic appeal of most high teas that lack the inspiration of real tea.

The additional requirement for an emphasis on originality, sustainability and use of local ingredients has produced a resounding response to the question, ‘what is a contemporary high tea?’…. there is none. A genuinely tea inspired High Tea in Abu Dhabi is fundamentally different to the same occasion in Wellington. A contemporary high tea served in winter is not the same as the same ritual in summer, nor the same when served in the home of one person and not the other. Real High Tea is a very personal occasion, decorated with Grandma’s teapot and stories of handmade tea, of love and friendship. It is indulgent though not overly so, as the tea inspired Chef understands that as much as tea is varied in its tastes and aromas, it is also effective in balancing richness, in easing sweetness, and in bringing savoury flavours to bloom.

A Real High Tea demands an understanding of tea from its brewing and presentation to its infinite flavours, texture, components and the terroir that is responsible for the fingerprint of nature on each tea. With that knowledge, the true tea ‘terroir-ist’ can expand upon culinary and hospitality skill to produce a sensationally pleasing outcome. Tea is pleasure but it is also natural goodness.

There is no herb that is quite like tea … fresh and properly brewed tea is good for our health – genuinely a healing herb, that protects against stress, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and virtually every other lifestyle disease. The combination of the two – pleasure and natural goodness – are the reason we chose our pursuit of a genuinely tea inspired, contemporary high tea. The Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge will reach its finale at the Global Challenge that is due to take place in Sri Lanka in 2014, 7 years after it started.

One team will win, but all who participated will be winners for their commitment to a challenge that is as respectful of the ancient art of teamaking as it is of contemporary style.


Afternoon Tea for the 21st Century

Craftsmanship most often forms the heart of luxury, for whether an exceptional wine, a perfect violin, or the beauty in a work of art, it is the genius of the artisan that transforms the ordinary to the exceptional. There is no greater expression of the singular importance of the artisan than in tea. Tea made in the traditional way that we cherish at Dilmah, follows a rhythm established centuries ago and which to this day defies standardization to the extent that the teamaker practicing his or her art must exercise skill born out of experience and expertise in every aspect of the tea production process. The time taken for

withering, rolling, fermentation, are each entirely subject to the skill of the teamaker, whilst being demanding of expertise to an extent where even minor variations from the ideal for each batch of leaf are magnified in the character of the tea.

Yet tea goes beyond craftsmanship. In ancient China it was said that tea represented the harmony of heaven, earth and man. Here lies the true beauty in tea for the artisanal method of manufacture relies entirely on the craftsmanship of man but also nature – heaven and earth – to offer fine tea. Real tea is more accurately known as Camellia Sinensis, a shrub that can grow up to 60 feet and has a lifespan of over a century. It is one species yet assuming myriad forms across different places and seasons. Tea grown on our Craighead Estate in a specific field will today have a certain characteristic, relating to rainfall, intensity of light, temperature, wind conditions and humidity. Within a single tea garden the valleys, east facing slopes, hilltops, westward slopes and others each present a different combination of flavour, texture, intensity and aroma. Several days later as one or more of these natural climatic influences change, each is undeniably altered. There is a spectacular and sophisticated beauty in this reality, that each tea is crafted by nature and handcrafted again through the combined, art and skill in handpicking the leaf, in the skill of the teamaker and the skill and expertise of the tea taster.

Tea is unquestionably luxurious but there is even more for tea is natural goodness, tea is friendship and companionship and tea is fun. High Tea is a world’s tea ceremony and it has the potential to express in a very compelling way the elegance, indulgence and serenity in tea. In most cases, even in the most extravagant high teas around the world, that is not so however. Our Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge was conceived in 2007 as an endeavour to present tea drinkers around the world with the special pleasure in tea and to elevate high tea to the experience that it could be. The Challenge we offered chefs and hospitality professionals around the world was to look at tea with contemporary insight, applying 21st century culinary, mixology and hospitality concepts to the 18th century tradition of afternoon tea. At the heart of the Challenge is respect for tea. Tea is a surprisingly affordable luxury and it is a lack of respect in relation to its selection, preparation, serving that have created a situation where afternoon tea is defined much more by food than by the appreciation of tea and where the disconnect between tea and food compromise the possibility of elevating the occasion to a gastronomic experience that is respectful of what heaven, earth and man have combined to offer in tea.

In this collection of genuinely tea inspired food and beverage which form the elements of an indulgent Dilmah Real High Tea, we have partnered with some of the world’s most passionate chefs, mixologists and hospitality professionals and we present a vision of afternoon tea for the 21st century. Most important about that vision is that it recognises the special relevance of culture, individuality, mood, gastronomy, mixology and heritage in crafting the perfect afternoon tea. There is no single definition of the perfect high tea but rather a multiplicity that are as varied and complex as tea itself, linked to the personality of the chef, the culture that you wish to share, the natural environment and therefore ingredients you wish to use, the nature of the occasion, whether a celebration or a moment of solace, an expression of art or of purity and a host of other factors all focussed on tea. The one consistent characteristic of a Real High Tea is that all these dimensions are focussed on tea in its beguiling and natural variety.

“The time taken for withering, rolling, fermentation, are each entirely subject to the skill of the teamaker, whilst being demanding of expertise to an extent where even minor variations from the ideal for each batch of leaf are magnified in the character of the tea.’

There is a spectacular and sophisticated beauty in this reality, that each tea is crafted by nature and handcrafted again through the combined, art and skill in handpicking the leaf, in the skill of the teamaker and the skill and expertise of the tea taster.

“At the heart of the Challenge is respect for tea. Tea is a surprisingly affordable luxury and it is a lack of respect in relation to its selection, preparation, serving that have created a situation where afternoon tea is defined much more by food than by the appreciation of tea”


The Soul of the Leaf

For centuries the world has valued tea more than any other herb. Of course there is coffee, but the bean only shares a faint glimmer of the brilliance in tea. Many will contest that statement, but the indisputable truth remains that tea is uniquely blessed with the influence of Nature across every sense, and therefore pure in its expression. Water, another drink whose natural origin is unquestionable, is like tea in that it cannot be made by man without the influence of Nature but quite distant from tea in its expression of its beauty.

Tea from Nuwara Eliya, one of the most famous terroirs in Sri Lanka, is sometimes imbued with a subtle but distinctive floral fragrance, which continues on the tongue as a brightness that insists that even tea tasters engaged in tasting a ‘batch’ savour every sip. When that refinement emerges from the ordinary depends entirely on the weather. Across the hills in the Uva valley there is similar alchemy. As the dry and chilly ‘kachan’ winds course through the valley they excite the plants into a false sense of desperation that produces the spectacular minty, eucalyptus and honey notes in tea that only days prior was good but not this good.

Within the Uva valley a micro terroir in one estate across the valley from another that has been ‘touched’ by the seasonal quality, produces an even more elegant tea. The softness of the seasonal flush in that estate is a slow and romantic dance between two lovers whilst opposite a spectacular tango offers the energy and finesse of a beautiful seasonal tea.

Meanwhile, on Craighead Estate an indulgence beyond anything the finest caviar could induce, is being handmade. Fine Silver Tips, tests the limits of the English language in capturing a complex and unimaginably delicate white tea in the miniature buds of the tea plant. At the same moment creamy, soft, fruity, bright, delicate and wonderfully fragrant. Real white tea is a beautiful experience that every person should savour at least once in their life. The magical allure in fine tea is that the converse is equally true.

On Dombagastalawa Estate, a malty, slightly earthy pekoe presents entirely different texture, strength, flavour and fragrance. In the Ratnapura region, tea of a very different order is Nature’s suggestion. No more elegance and subtlety but rich, robust flavours, fig, berries, molasses. So varied yet expressing only a fraction of the diversity in tea. Unlike wine all this complexity revolves around a single plant, camellia sinensis. It is not the tea that dictates its taste, but Nature – the environment in which each tea bush grows is what determines strength, texture, fragrance, flavour.

The teamaker too is only a tool in this process. By ‘process’ I mean the real way of making tea – the traditional, orthodox method which is artisanal in its nature, reflecting the same principle of preparing the leaf for drinking as practiced when tea was first discovered. This method demands time, expertise and expense but it is respectful of Nature, for it does not attempt to overpower Nature’s work in the leaves but to nurture and express that in the terroir of each tea.

Tea has no equal and is undisputed in its uniqueness as pleasurable, natural, pure and healing herb. If that understanding has dawned on you, the rest is pure goodness.

This is the soul of the leaf, for tea is unique in being imbued with the fingerprint of nature in the fragrance, flavour, appearance and personality of each tea. There is so much more for that uniqueness assumes even greater distinction when the natural goodness in tea is considered. In a world where tradition is least respected, and time – even for brewing a cup of tea – is short, there is only one suggestion that I can make. Invest in a teapot – it will prove its worth as an investment. Show respect for good tea by brewing it right – good water, a good kettle, fine porcelain and the right number of stirs and time for brewing. Tea has no equal and is undisputed in its uniqueness as pleasurable, natural, pure and healing herb. If that understanding has dawned on you, the rest is pure goodness.