It's 3.30 pm in the Cameron Highlands, which rise some 5000 ft above sea level and are reached by a vertiginous four-hour drive winding up through the jungle from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. The landscape up here seems otherworldly; with high ridges as far as the eye can see covered in strangely vivid, clipped bushes which at first resemble either a vast art installation by the likes of sculptor-in-nature Andy Goldsworthy or maybe a place J.R.R. Tolkien might have imagined for his orcs and elves.
Then the eye is drawn to a different silhouette atop one of the bright green slopes, which, as one gets closer, is revealed to be a table shaded by a vast parasol. Beneath it stands a waiter in a starched white uniform. Laid out on a damask cloth are bone china cups along with finger sandwiches and home-baked scones; all in all a spread that would not look out of place at the London Ritz. Behold the "afternoon tea picnic" prepared by the Cameron Highlands Resort Hotel and served on a working tea plantation. The hotel also offers tea planter guided walks and, before every treatment on its spa menu, a detoxifying, skin-softening bath in cold tea.
Tea Tourism is a growing niche, confirms Caroline Grayburn, of Tim Best Travel, a London-based travel agent known for planning unusual, bespoke trips. "An interest in tea can take you to the exceptionally beautiful Darjeeling in the northeast of India, or to Kerala in the south, or even to Uganda and Malawi in Africa. Our clients are keen to get beneath the surface of a country and see how it works and of course being served afternoon tea in ravishingly lovely hill country, well, what could be more glorious?" she adds.
Joe Simrany, president of The Tea Council of the USA, who has also stayed on breathtaking tea plantations in China and Sri Lanka, agrees. "There's nothing like waking up at the top of the world, with only the noise of birds and monkeys."
Those who love tea are fortunate that the camellia sinensis, the plant from which all tea whether black, green, white or Oolong is derived (except of course peppermint, chamomile or fruit teas, which are not strictly teas at all) is inherently picturesque; especially when viewed from a cane armchair on a shady veranda.
As for the round-the-world rituals of tea, the precision of tea making is fascinating to observe from the Chinese style to the wonders of Japanese tea ceremony. Even English-style Afternoon Tea accompanied by finger sandwiches and freshly-baked scones is enjoying a considerable revival. In modern Britain where workers sup their afternoon "cuppa" on the go, the tea break may be a thing of the past, yet going out for afternoon tea has, perversely, never been more popular. At Fortnum & Mason, the Piccadilly store which started selling loose leaf tea in 1707, the instore restaurants alone brew 40 kilos a week; that's 3,600 pots or about 7,200 cups.
"There's a certain ceremony to tea," says Simon Burdess, Fortnum & Msaon's trading director. "It's the absolute opposite to the morning shot of espresso. It has its protocols, it's about slowing down and taking a moment from the hustle of the modern world, which, these days, seems the ultimate luxury."
The French took to tea in 1636, eight years before it arrived in England and what were then Britannia's colonies in the Americas. Afternoon tea, French style, (accompanied by macaroons or madeleines, but never with milk) has been enjoying a considerable renaissance too, which some attribute to Sofia Coppola's 2006 movie, "Marie Antoinette", where the Queen and her friends taking tea was portrayed as an 18th century equivalent of the Carrie Bradshaw and the girls with their Cosmopolitans.
In India, the source of much of the world's tea, the ceremony of afternoon tea used to be considered a throwback to the Raj, "yet recently, my girlfriends and I have rediscovered The Willingdon Club in Mumbai for the full afternoon tea," says Sheetal Mafatlal, the president of Mafatlal Luxury, which has the Valentino franchise in India.
Such fashionability makes it tempting to call tea the new coffee, although this would be ridiculous from a historical perspective, given that an emperor in ancient China (or more likely, his servant) first threw boiling water onto plucked leaves some 3,000 years before Arabian traders decided to boil up the coffee beans they had gotten from Ethiopia. Worldwide, tea is far more popular than coffee (except in the US, where it also trails behind soft drinks, beer and milk). Yet while Arabica certainly has its aficionados and people all over the globe are now familiar with the "Tall, Grande, Vente" lingo of Starbucks, "there are literally thousands of different types of tea to discover, according to the Tea Council's Simrany.
The taste of the four main types of tea varies according to how the leaf is treated before it is dried: hence white tea, which comes from the tips, tastes different from black tea, where the leaves have been wilted, rolled and fermented and which is again different from Oolong, where the fermenting process is arrested half way through. Green tea leaves are dried fresh from picking. Add to this first and second flush, which refers to when the leaves were picked; then geographical origin from robust, malty Assam in India to light, bright Dimbula Ceylon, from Sri Lanka. There is leaf size to consider too and here, the term "Orange Pekoe" has nothing to do with oranges, but instead denotes whether the leaf is a bud, even the very tip of a bud.
Good tea, like fine wine, carries the character of the land where it is grown. The world's top traders employ tasters, who are rather like perfumers, except they must juggle with flavor as well as aroma to mix extraordinary blends. "We have two people here who can identify tea virtually to the hillside on which it was grown", says Fortnum & Mason's Burdess, "and that simply isn't possible with coffee where so much of the flavor comes from the roasting."
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