Ceylon Tea grown in Sabaragamuwa

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Asked to name the product most closely associated with Sabaragamuwa, most Sri Lankans would probably say ‘gems’. The valleys of this fertile and beautiful province are home to alluvial soils rich in precious stones, including sapphires, rubies, moonstones, cat’s-eyes and star sapphires. The mines of Sabaragamuwa have been worked for over two thousand years, and some scholars identify the province with the ‘land of gems’ described in the Sixth Voyage of Sindbad the Sailor, as told in the Arabian Nights.

Whatever the truth of this, Moorish gem-traders were frequent visitors to Ratnapura, the provincial capital, in the centuries before the European arrival, and the area still houses a large and vibrant Muslim community whose members remain prominent in the local gem trade. Yet Sabaragamuwa is also Sri Lanka’s biggest tea-growing region or ‘district’, whose relative importance has increased since the expansion of markets for Ceylon Tea in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union.

The teas of Sabaragamuwa, like those of Ruhuna, are mainly low-grown. Its estates range in elevation from sea level to around 800m (2,500ft). The highest estates lie just below the boundaries of the Sinharaja and Peak Wilderness nature reserves and share in the microclimatic conditions produced by the rainforests, cloud forests and high, grassy plains endemic to this region. As a result, they produce tea of a somewhat different character to that grown at lower elevations in the district. Some of these estates receive the highest rainfall of any in the plantation districts.

The Sabaragamuwa tea-growing district covers most of the western and south-western faces of the central mountains of Sri Lanka. The terrain is hilly, with numerous small valleys cut into the hillsides by streams and rivers draining the upper massif. Copiously watered by the southwest monsoon, it features climatic conditions typical of tropical rainforest: hot and humid in the open, moist and cool where tree cover is thick. Despite being thickly populated, it remains a green and pleasant land, rich in natural beauty.

The most famous of its many places of interest is Adam’s Peak or Sri Pada, a 2,200m (7,000ft) mountain peak, conical and symmetrical, at the summit of which a giant, intricately-decorated and detailed footprint has been carved into the rock. Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims all venerate this relic, whose origins are lost in the mists of antiquity. Adam’s Peak has been a place of pilgrimage and visitation for longer than anyone can remember, even though the climb is steep and was formerly very dangerous. Adam’s Peak is only the most prominent attraction of a land rich in history and legend. Indeed, the earliest traces of human settlement in Sri Lanka, dating back 34,000 years or more, were found not far from Ratnapura. Various legends relating to the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana, have been attached to places in Sabaragamuwa; the region also has a number of important associations in history and folklore and was the scene of much warfare and intrigue during the Portuguese period (1505-1658). Tea from the estates of Sabaragamuwa seems to distil the essence of this rich and varied culture, belying the district’s twentieth-century rise to prominence in the industry.

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The teas of Sabaragamuwa, like those of Ruhuna, are mainly low-grown. Its estates range in elevation from sea level to around 800m (2,500ft). Sabaragamuwa show a little more variation in character than those of the other predominantly low-grown district, Ruhuna. The liquor, too, is similar to that of Ruhuna teas, dark yellow-brown with a reddish tint in the dry season, though lightening somewhat with altitude. The ‘nose’ or aroma, however, is noticeably different from the Ruhuna product, with a hint of sweet caramel, and not quite as strong as the latte