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Fine Tea Tasting and Opera in Europe

by Fathima Razik Cader

Almost 350 years after tea was first sold in England (i.e. in 1657) an elite gathering was hosted to an event - the first of it's kind where those present went through the motions of fine tea tasting and opera, in exclusive venues in London in June 2002.

Along with this unique event was live Opera on hand to entertain the guests on a warm summer afternoon - and the whole exercise turned out to be an outright success with encores for more.

Sir Peter Wakefield and Sir Colin Imray

Unique is how one could describe such an event - for after all, when have we even heard of fine tea tasting and an opera going hand in hand? But this is exactly what happened when Sri Lanka's second oldest company - Mackwoods Ltd. embarked on a mission to not just promote Sri Lanka tea as a commodity, but also to show the tea drinkers in the world that tea is a beverage that needs to be truly appreciated and relished in every sense of the word.

Perhaps it might be appropriate to trace the history of tea, and for a start, a 12th century Japanese belief - "Wherever the tea tree grows, the place, whether a mountain or valley, is sacred". Sri Lanka in that context should therefore be considered sacred, on account of the vast areas in the hills and other regions where tea is grown profusely.

Chairperson Mackwood Ltd Sriyani nonis, Anne de Lasta and Sri Lankan High Commissioner H.E. Faisz Mustapha

Interestingly, a famous story on the origins of tea dates back to 2737 BC, when legendary Chinese Emperor Shen Nung, who on one of his travels, was resting in the shade of a wild tea tree. A few leaves from this tree had fallen into a pot of water that was boiling. The aroma that emanated attracted his attention so much so that he took a few sips of the brew.

And Shen Nung found that is tasted as glorious, and thus this delectable drink was launched in the Courts of Cathay and became a firm feature.

Also of interest is the fact that the origins of tea could be traced to China and the North East parts of India. It found its way to Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called) in 1824 from China and 15 years later, in 1839 from Assam (India) and was grown in the Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya and Nuwara Eliya, respectively, on an experimental basis.

However, it took 28 (long) years thereafter, when tea planting on a commercial scale was undertaken. James Taylor planted tea on Loolecondra Estate in the Hewahata District with seeds procured from Assam (India). Around the same time, clearings were opened by the brothers Solomon and Gabriel de Worms at Labookellie Estate in the Ramboda District with seeds procured from China. The year 1873 saw the first tea export from Ceylon to London. It contained 23 pounds.

Twenty years later, the exports increased to a staggering 82 million pounds - the result of prudent expansion of tea planting. Little Sri Lanka, today, can be justifiably proud of being the leading exporter in the world with the figures for the year 2002 posting nearly 650 million pounds. It naturally follows that, as a result, Colombo is the largest tea auction centre in the world.

Our tea industry can therefore be compared to a goldmine. But diversifying in a manner that is worthy of mention is the second oldest company in Sri Lanka, Mackwoods Ltd (founded in 1841 by Captain William Mackwood.) N.S.O. Mendis, a visionary and a renowned entrepreneur in his time, acquired Mackwoods in 1956, and the Chairperson today is his daughter, Sriyani Nonis. Mackwoods and Ceylon tea have a partnership that dates back to almost the inception of tea in Ceylon.

The brainchild of elevating the appreciation of fine single estate Ceylon Tea to a sophisticated art form in the setting of live opera, bore fruit when Mackwoods embarked on a unique plan pioneering fine tea tasting and opera events to connoisseurs and tea enthusiasts in the cultural capital of the world London in June 2002. Thus they became the pioneers in presenting and promoting tea in this manner.

Naturally a plan of action was drawn and meticulously executed. The Mackwoods team got their act together. The venues were exclusive clubs in Central London boasting of an exclusive membership and whose Patron is Her Majesty, The Queen. The event was publicized in prestigious magazines in London under the Spring/Summer events in the midst of so many other notable social activities for the season. Participation was limited to a manageable number.

All necessities - aprons, specially serrated cups to taste tea and brass spittoons to spit into were made in Sri Lanka. The finest of Ceylon teas - Single Estate Teas and an elegant and informative docket containing interesting and valuable information on tea, its origins, the trade and tea tasting was printed for distribution to all participants. But there was more activity behind the scenes. The Opera, which was an essential part of the programe, was arranged. A trio (comprising a pianist, and two opera singers one of them from Paris) was commissioned to perform.

A series of rehearsals took place in the office of Mackwoods - the 'protagonists' being the Directors of the Company. This was to ensure that each one would play his or her part in order that this pioneering event would run smoothly.

A few hours before the event, the venue was arranged and the organizers noted with appreciation, the co-operation they received by the staff of the club. And so it was time to present this most unique event - Fine Tea Tasting and Opera - perhaps the first of its kind in Europe. An educational experience deftly combined with live light opera which in no small measure, delighted the discerning European audience of tea enthusiasts and connoisseurs - resulting in Sri Lankan Single Estate Teas been established in the international arena.

Tea tasting therefore has become an art form and as a refined experience, on par with wine tasting in France.

Amongst those who participated were notably, Vyvyan Harmsworth - Corporate Director, Daily Mail, London, Lyndsay Ross, Director, Commonwealth Press Union (CPU), Sir Peter Wakefield - an Eminent Patron of the Arts, Sir Colin Imray - a former Diplomat and Chairman of a leading club in London and Lady Imray, prominent media personalities - Derrick Ingram and Neville de Silva, Sir Michael McWilliam, Stuart Mole, The Honourable Ivor Lucas and Anne de Lasta. Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in the UK, His Excellency Faisz Mustapha was also present.

Mackwoods was also accorded the unique privilege of presenting the Mackwoods "Queens Golden Jubilee Blend" at Buckingham Palace in June 2002. This connoisseur's blend was especially created to honour the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11, an in fact, carries the official Golden Jubilee Logo. This is another boost to a company that is long standing and steeped in tradition in the tea industry.

In response to numerous requests, four such events were held in June this year - three in London and one in Vienna, the Austrian capital where Sri Lanka's Ambassador His Excellency Laksiri Mendis hosted the event. This time around, the tasting of Mackwoods fine Single Estate Teas were accompanied by the music of Johann Strauss - very apt under the circumstances.

Showing her musical prowess was Dr. Prashanthi Mendis, the wife of the Ambassador whose performance must be seen and heard by any music lover. No doubt she complemented Mackwoods speciality brands whilst Ambassador Mendis saw to it that the event was graced by a host of diplomats from European countries and representatives from the Viennese tea trade.

The outright success of the pioneering event in June 2002, and the four events held in June this year, has spurred the team from Mackwoods to hold similar events in other parts of Europe and the Far East as well. Mackwoods was represented this year by Sriyani Nonis - Chairperson, Dr. Chris Nonis and Lalith Fonseka Directors, Raji de Sylva - Consultant (who lectured at the event) and Pradeep Cabraal - Manager.

One wonders whether Captain William Mackwood would have thought for a single moment, that 163 years after he set up the Company, his name would continue to live - thanks to an enterprising family and staff of committed and dedicated people, who continue to conduct business in a manner that personifies dignity and refinement - and not for a single moment compromising on tradition, culture and quality.

And so Mackwoods Fine Tea Tasting and Opera, by becoming a sophisticated international event, has put Sri Lanka firmly in the spotlight!

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