Tania Unsworth, Children's Writer

Drinking stars

04 Sep 2015

This little star shaped thing is made from tea. It is unique to Amba Estate, a tiny tea farm high in the mountains of Sri Lanka.

The star comes from legendary soil. Amba Estate lies directly above a waterfall where according to the Indian epic, the Ramayana, the kidnapped goddess Sita hid in a cave, waiting to be rescued by her husband Rama.

Up on the steep slopes, the tea bushes are stressed by high altitude and drought, forced to concentrate all their resources into fewer leaves. But because of this, the leaves they do produce are of a rare, fine quality. And as they grow, they are cared for with great diligence; fertilized organically, weeded manually, helped by the company of other, soil enhancing plants. Then the tea is picked – only the bud and a single leaf – plucked between thumb and forefinger. In a small factory on the estate, the leaves and buds are spread to dry. Then, when they have lost just the right amount of moisture, they are rolled by hand in tiny batches. Women do this job because only their touch is gentle enough to form the strands of tea without breaking them.

To make a star, twenty-six buds are selected, chosen at exactly the right time before they become too brittle. The buds are tied together with cotton, carefully pressed into shape and dried in an oven, constantly monitored to maintain the perfect temperature.

The whole process from goddess-blessed soil, to bush, to leaf, to bud, to star, is so painstaking, so fiddly, and so time consuming that it seems as much an act of love as it is of labor.

Now the star floats in a glass in front of me. It has been steeped for long moments in water boiled to 80C, no more, no less. The points of the star have unfurled and the tea is a clear, delicate yellow, only a little darker than champagne. No sugar is added, no milk. It is simply what it is.

I sip it slowly. Tea from Amba Estate is sold in expensive gourmet stores like Fortnum & Mason and Harney & Sons, so I know it’s considered excellent. But to me it seems better than excellent. It seems like the best tea I have ever drunk. Perhaps it is because of its pretty color and its appealing shape. Or perhaps it is because I now know the long and marvelous story of how it was made.

Long and marvelous stories always make everything taste better.

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