Tea Total

For a culinary adventure, escape to three bungalow boltholes in Sri Lanka’s hill country with Teardrop Hotels
Nine Skies Bungalow
Teardrop Hotels
Nine Skies Bungalow
May 02, 2019
By Tiffany Eslick

Winding my way through Sri Lanka’s jungly heart on narrowing roads, I see small towns with teahouses clinging to cliffs. Feisty red buses toot as they pass tuk-tuks on hair-raising bends. The air is thick with the aroma of spices, steaming rice and wood smoke. But, as I drive further into the tea country, this changes to forest scents. Tightly packed tea bushes upholster the landscape, creating a sea of luminescent green. I climb even higher, until I’m surrounded by mist, and when I don’t think it’s possible to go further, a sign points upwards to Camellia Hills.

This five-bedroom bungalow by Teardrop Hotels (USD 385 per night on an all-inclusive basis, based on two adults sharing) is the first stop on a sojourn in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands. Set above the Castlereagh Reservoir, on the Dunkeld Estate, and established in 1875, it’s a five-hour drive from Colombo, but taking a 30-minute seaplane flight that lands on the reservoir is an option, too.

The team at Teardrop has created a portfolio of niche properties across the country by restoring or renovating heritage homes. Camellia Hills and its two sister hotels in the tea region, Goatfell and Nine Skies, each have a distinct look and feel. Yet at all three boltholes, I find attentive – but by no means overbearing – butlers; passionate local chefs; the sort of comfort I experience only when tucked up on the couch at home; and the most breath-taking views.

Nine Skies' Pool

Most meals at Camellia Hills are taken on the terrace or at the pool, while sundowners and spicy snacks happen on top of a hill, overlooking undulating tea fields. I start each morning with coconut hoppers – Sri Lanka’s answer to fluffy pancakes – and thick papaya juice, which is like nectar. The Tea Planter’s Lunch offers a colour wheel of curries, which fill the table, and a highlight from the dinner menu is pan-fried tuna steak with garlic chilli, lime rice, black mustard greens and red pepper achcharu – a pickle of sorts that adds crunch and zing.

The area around Camellia Hills beckons to be explored, be that by walking through nearby villages; kayaking at sunrise on the reservoir; leopard-spotting at night (yes, you read that correctly); or exploring a nearby tea factory like that at Pedro Estate.

In 1867, it was British planter James Taylor who introduced Sri Lanka to farming tea. He set up Loolecondera estate in Galaha, but some of the country’s finest teas come from near Camellia Hills because the humidity, cooler climes and rainfall in these central highlands provide the perfect environment for production.

Inside Pedro Estate’s multi-windowed warehouse, I learn about the toilsome process of picking tea. Women spend eight hours a day collecting an average of 18kg of tender leaves, plucked just two to three at a time from each bush. Then, after 14 hours of withering the leaves, the entire production process –evaporation, rolling and light fermentation – takes place after midnight, when temperatures are at their lowest. Finally, the leaves are sorted and graded, from the finest dust to the most-prized orange pekoe.

Coconut Rotis Seeni Sambol

En route to Goatfell, I look at the women weighing their tea leaves at road-side stations with new appreciation. As I drive almost unbelievably higher into the hills, past giant boulders, the tea plantations are brightened in the midday sun. A deer bounces through a clearing, but it vanishes in seconds.

Goatfell (USD 411 per night on an all-inclusive basis, based on two adults sharing) opened late last year, and it’s surrounded by Nuwara Eliya’s valleys of tea, as far as the eye can see. Set on the Concordia Estate at 2,000 metres above sea level, this former superintendent’s residence is smaller than Camellia Hills, with four en-suite bedrooms, a living room and dining room.
A swimming pool hangs over the edge of the garden. There’s a sprawling croquet lawn and a refreshing breeze, which rustles consistently through the soaring trees surrounding
the property.

My spacious Ragala Room backs on to a vegetable garden. Its seasonal produce – and that from neighbouring farms – features on the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus. One evening, over lamb chops with locally grown carrots and leeks, I taste nai miris. Goatfell’s chef adds a twist to this fiery Sri Lankan sauce by adding buffalo curd. It’s lip-smackingly good and, somewhere between bites, I stop to ask for the recipe.

That same night, there’s a tangible magic in the air. Sitting beside a bonfire, listening to Bossa Nova and eating roasted-coconut ice cream, I watch a lone storm cloud hovering over the valley. It flashes pink, then orange, then bright white with each bolt of lightning. Luckily, it stays where it is, so I can linger under the stars.

Nine Skies' room with a view

At Nine Skies, I wake to birdsong and chants at dawn. It’s also not long before I hear steam trains signalling their arrival along the nearby, famous Demodera loop.

The hotel (USD 372 per night on an all-inclusive basis, based on two adults sharing) was once a director’s bungalow and is perhaps the grandest of Teardrop’s three tea-country properties. It takes its name from the nearby nine-arch viaduct; this striking bridge was built entirely from rocks, bricks and cement with no steel or metal structure and it’s an easy meander along the railway tracks.

Hipster hangout Ella is not far away either. A hike up Little Adam’s Peak starts there, and it’s home to a new zip line, which lets you fly across the tree tops in a flash.

Chefs Danushka Ranasingha and Pradeep Kumara run Nine Skies’ kitchen, whipping up home-made preserves, coconut rotis with seeni sambol (sweet onion relish) and lunu miris (a spicy red onion, smoked fish and lime mix) and all sorts of other local delicacies that may soon feature in Teardrop’s first cookbook.

Cooking with chefs in Sri Lanka

One late afternoon, I join them for an al fresco cooking class. Vegetables, herbs and spices decorate our table, which stands in front of a natural backdrop that looks like a scene from a film set. As the sun sets, we sizzle onion, garlic and chillies in clay pots before making dhal, mango, prawn, jackfruit, milk potato (manioc), gotu kola (a medicinal herb) and Chinese
spinach curries.

Mango Curry

Chef Danushka’s fragrant mango curry is also tart. I think the sweet and sour balance is just right and it tastes like summer in a bowl.

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15-20 minutes
Serves: 2-4

2 tbsp coconut oil, for frying
½ red onion
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 whole green chilli, sliced
1 piece mace
½ spinneysFOOD Cinnamon Stick
2 spinneysFOOD Cardamom Pods, bruised with the back of a knife to open
2-3 pandan leaves (or bay leaves), torn
2-3 curry leaves
2 green mangoes, including skin, washed and
cut into cheeks
1 tbsp spinneysFOOD Turmeric Powder
1 tsp spinneysFOOD Curry Powder
1 tsp spinneysFOOD Chilli Powder
2 cups spinneysFOOD Bottled Water
1 tbsp spinneysFOOD Fine Grain White Sugar
¼ cup coconut milk
spinneysFOOD Salt, to taste

1 In a clay pot or heavy-based frying pan, add a drizzle of coconut oil and sauté the sliced onion, garlic and chilli (including the seeds) over a low heat for approximately 10 minutes. 2 Add the mace, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, pandan leaves and curry leaves and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring every so often. 3 Add the mango, followed by the turmeric, curry powder and chilli powder. Keep stirring. 4 Add the water and simmer for 5 minutes before adding the sugar. 5 Once the mango pieces are tender, add ¼ cup coconut milk, cover and continue to simmer for 10 minutes. 6 Season with salt. 7 Serve with rice.

Prawn Curry

The trick to this dish is to add the prawns or shrimp at the last minute to ensure they’re tender, covered in the juices and cooked
to perfection.

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Serves: 2-4

2 tbsp coconut oil, for frying
1 whole red onion, finely sliced
1 green chilli, finely sliced
3 small cloves garlic, sliced
½ spinneysFOOD Cinnamon Stick
½ piece mace
2 spinneysFOOD Cardamom Pods
½ tsp spinneysFOOD Turmeric Powder
1 tsp spinneysFOOD Curry Powder
6-7 curry leaves
2 tomatoes, diced
2 cups coconut milk
30 prawns or shrimp, cleaned and shells removed
spinneysFOOD Salt, to taste

1 In a clay pot, sauté the onion, green chilli and garlic in coconut oil over a medium heat until golden. 2 Add the cinnamon, mace, cardamom, turmeric, curry powder and curry leaves and cook for a further 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until the spices are fragrant. 3 Add the diced tomatoes, stir in the coconut milk and simmer. 4 Add the prawns, cover and cook through.
5 Season with salt. 6 Serve immediately.

With the ambition of making these dishes back home, I stock up on handmade clay pots when descending from tea country towards the south-west coast. As the road snakes through the mountains, dense jungle foliage gives way to skinny palm trees and it’s the green of rice paddies, as opposed to tea bushes, that now commands attention. We slow down while passing through villages and to allow buffaloes and their calves to cross our path. The impatient red buses are back with a vengeance, but they’ll never deter the tuk-tuks, which bob along to their own beat.

For more information visit teardrop-hotels.com