My increasing intoxication with the world of teas is being fuelled in no small way by my travels. Last month a sign for “virgin white tea” caught my eye as I drove down a narrow road, flanked by cinnamon plantations and paddy fields, on my way to one of Sri Lanka’s newest hotels, the magical Tri, which overlooks tranquil Koggala Lake.
Virgin white tea is originally from China, where legend has it that emperors allowed only virgins with silk gloves to cut the tea buds with gold scissors into gold bowls. In Sri Lanka, the Handunugoda Estate has introduced this tea to great acclaim. On my visit I discovered that pickers have to wear gloves to prevent any tainting, by perspiration or perfume, of the delicate taste, and their work is carried out in the early hours before the buds unfurl. The buds are then dried using only filtered sunlight and the yield is tantalisingly small, resulting in grams at the end of the pick rather than the kilos elsewhere on the plantation (which explains the high price of $90 for 100g).
The virgin white tea I bought does indeed make a beautifully delicate drink, which would no doubt taste best from a cup of paper-thin porcelain. Rather like the andante in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, you need to stop everything and concentrate on its exquisite flavour before it finishes. It has also been discovered that this tea has an antioxidant content of 10.11 per cent, the highest naturally occurring amount in any beverage, and has a powerful range of health benefits.
Virgin white tea might be the estate’s most noteworthy brew, but my visit uncovered myriad other delicious offerings, including the sapphire oolong tea, so called because the soil where the tea is grown is laced with minute sapphires, the gem for which the island is renowned. I did buy some but haven’t tried it yet; I’m saving the promise of “a taste of sapphire” for a particularly gloomy winter’s day.