The village of Tanah Rata lies at the heart of the Malaysian upland area collectively known as The Cameron Highlands.
It is a strange looking place; undoubtedly Asian in its general appearance with the usual ramshackle planning and an absence of level pavements, but with a strong hint of Europeaness in the architecture of apartments and hotels that suggest the town has the aspirations of an Alpine wanna-be.
With it’s Indian immigrant influence, what also strikes me upon arrival is the signage being displayed in three distinct scripts; the familiar Latin alphabet of Malay, the logographic designs of Mandarin Chinese, and the curved font Brahmic letters of Tamil.
The food is cheap in these parts if you want to eat local. A meal consisting of a huge masala dosai costs no more than 40p. Beer was reasonable, but the tea?
That was exceptionally well priced.
I mention this because for nearly 100 years, The Cameron Highlands have been home to the BOH tea plantations.
In 1929, a Scotsman by the name of Russell, established that the highlands possess all the right attributes of prime tea cropland – moderate temperatures, high altitude, abundant rainfall, long hours of sunshine and well-drained soil.
Being a canny Jock, he also noted that the demand for high quality tea remained high even during slumps. His legacy is still producing brews to this very day.
The approach to Sungei Palas tea plantation is something of a surreal affair and from a distance the tea crops appear to flow in great green waves across the hillsides.
It is only upon closer inspection that I understand what the tea crop actually looks like.
To cut a long story short, think of a garden hedge, get the shears out, and make that a full-time occupation for several hundred people.
In their natural state, tea trees grow to a considerable height. In order to keep a year round harvest of young leaves, every 20 or so days, they are trimmed (very much in the way that one might trim a hedgerow) and prevented from growing to anything greater than 1 metre in height.
My first reaction was that this place would have made a great stag weekend location for my mate Philipos Que Tal.
Each August Bank Holiday, Philipos invites a select group of friends to his parents home in Hampshire to undertake the annual hedge cutting ceremony.
Over the years the weekend has turned into a legendary event that rivals Glastonbury as the top summer destination in South-West England for the under-employed and terminally short of cash.
As September arrives, I eagerly await the Facebook publication of the photos that will inevitably feature Alexos Amigo (King of Balham) stripped to the waist, displaying a slightly less chiselled set of pecs than the year previous, a snap of Philipos and his former flatmate Vincenzo sporting beers in hand, and the de rigueur WAG tooled up with the latest item of Alexos’ animal slaying weaponry which may be a rifle, a machete or as I expect to see for 2012, a hand-grenade.
The weekend is such an event that the participants go so far as to have t-shirts designed to mark the occasion.
I shudder to think what Philipos’ (non drinking, Czech) wife Teresa makes of all this and I’m sure she would much prefer a visit to The BOH plantation than a post-trimming booze-up in an Alresford pub.
You see, in the same way that I know my IPA’s from my golden ales, Teresa could tell you that tea is very much like wine; the conditions in which the crop is grown have great influence on its final character.
BOH’s tea plants, yield a tea “with superb characteristics – bright and brisk complemented by a delightful aroma”, and from the short tour of the plant which we undertake, it is possible to work out how each stage in the process of preparation might result in a slightly different end product if one of the variables were changed.
The freshly picked tea leaves are withered for 12-24 hours to reduce their moisture content before being rolled and crushed into smaller particle sizes.
The leaves are then exposed to oxygen to allow them to ferment, after which they are blasted in hot air for ten minutes and dried to a point where they contain only 3% moisture and the fermentation process is therefore halted.
This produces the familiar tea product which we drink.
Upon visiting the tea shop which sits on a raised platform overlooking the central valley, I munch upon a tasty tart made from locally grown strawberries and wash it down with a pot of their best quality brew.
It really is a more complex taste than PG Tips, and I’m sure Philipos will be happy to drink it with me when we meet up in Krabi next month.
Then again, maybe not.