A treat with tea

Two years ago, in an inspired move, premier tea firm Dilmah celebrating their small beginnings in Australia and an enviable record of 21 years of growth since, invited eight of Australia’s leading chefs to take a trip to their home of tea to gain an understanding of what makes the beverage unique. Along the way they would see the efforts of Dilmah’s charity arm, the MJF Charitable Foundation particularly the Maha Ara village school in Hambantota set up to support children orphaned by the devastating tsunami in 2004.

The outcome was a culinary voyage that chartered new courses for the beverage that we Sri Lankans take so much for granted. Here is the stuff of our morning cuppa, the invigorating brew we sip with scant regard. True, we are limited by this very familiarity for seldom do we envision this very same beverage being used in ways that defy the imagination. Confronted with the challenge to discover new ways with tea, the eight master chefs from Australia surpassed themselves.

Tea encrusted Atlantic Salmon with beetroot, wasabi and a soya caramel; Cardamom and Green Tea seeped scallops, Schezuan pepper and orange pressed duck, fennel puree; Nilagama Single Estate Tea cured free range pork belly, sweet corn custard, pickled red cabbage and crab apple; Marmalade bread and butter pudding with Earl Grey infused prunes; Italian Dolce Parfait, chocolate doughnut, caramelized fig and caramel anglais tea sauce…such were the gourmet dishes they dreamed up.

This year, Dilmah will reprise that successful journey with twelve chefs and a sommelier, this time not only from Australia but from Europe , Asia and South America — the Czech Republic, Lithuania, the Maldives, India, Indonesia, New Zealand, Belgium, Poland, Chile and the Netherlands descending on Colombo to host ‘The International Tea Culinary Experience’ — a charity dinner at the Hilton on April 26. Here for a gathering of just one hundred guests they will each prepare a tea-inspired Menu Degustation drawing on the flavours of their own country and their culinary traditions, each chef catering for a table of eight. Funds raised at the charity dinner will be matched by the MJF Foundation and the target is Rs. 1 million for a programme to foster culinary entrepreneurship in the North and East, under the Foundation’s successful Small Entrepreneur Programme (SEP).

For the likes of Peter Kuruvita, who led the eight celebrity chefs on the first tea tour, it will again be a coming home to his native land where he imbibed the rich culinary traditions of his Austrian mother and Sri Lankan father growing up in the extended family home at Dehiwela. Kuruvita who runs Sydney’s trendy harbour front Flying Fish restaurant still maintains strong connections with the island and termed the opportunity to work with the Foundation a “life changing one, professionally and personally for all those who came on the first tea trip”.

Yet even for others like young chef Damien Heads from Sydney’s Pony Lounge, it was a revelation. “After bustling Colombo and the memorable journey up to the ancient royal capital, I was stunned by the sheer beauty, freshness and tranquillity of the tea plantations. It was then I understood why the Dilmah family had invited me here; to see tea as they do –one of the most versatile herbs that the goodness of nature provides.”

What struck Chef Johny Triscari who brings a Sicillian heritage to Adelaide’s gracious Chloe’s Restaurant were the children this initiative was aimed at helping. Meeting the youngsters at Maha Ara, he was touched by their resilience and spirit. “I just said cricket and we were surrounded by a sea of kids. The enthusiasm and curiosity of the children alone was enough to inspire me. But there was also so much depth in the culture and in the food of this beautiful island,” he said.

The story of their travel through the island unfolded in a television series titled ‘The Chefs and the Tea Maker’ which aired on Australian TV in 2009 following their progress as they journeyed through the tea valleys of Bogawantalawa, down to the south coast through village and plantation learning the secrets of Ceylon tea and experiencing first-hand the spontaneous warmth of village hospitality.

This April, the chefs will begin their 12-day Lankan odyssey learning about tea at Dilmah’s School of Tea. Here they will also be given an insight into the Dilmah philosophy – of making business a matter of human service. The tea firm that began with founder Merrill J. Fernando relaunching Ceylon tea under the Dilmah brand – providing pure Ceylon tea, garden fresh, unblended and packed at the source to markets abroad, has today with its phenomenal growth taken on a strong service bent and the charity dinner is part of this continuing drive.

Under the Small Entrepreneur Programme, one of its many initiatives begun in 2005 after the tsunami have emerged as many as 400 singular success stories -from a pappadam factory in Moneragala run by an enterprising young man to carpenters in Eravur and even prisoners on parole finding new livelihoods. The charity dinner funds will go to assist those in the war ravaged areas find their way as the hospitality industry so long affected begins to see a revival.

The money raised will go to support some 25 culinary entrepreneurs in Jaffna, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Arugam Bay and Ampara — bakers, caterers, restaurateurs and stewards from amongst the most disadvantaged segments of society who will be trained, given expert assistance with the help of the Chefs Guild of Lanka, and provided equipment to start their own small business.

For the visiting chefs it is no doubt a most enjoyable challenge — drinking in the serenity of Dilmah’s Ceylon Tea Trails villas, savouring the spice aromas in the company’s cinnamon estates during their 12-day tour of the island while letting their imagination and expertise blend with local herbs, spices and traditional ingredients in each location, to produce tea inspired food and drinks – all for a most worthy cause.

The Dilmah Chefs and the Tea Maker Grand Charity Dinner will be held at the Colombo Hilton on April 26 at 7.30 p.m. The event is sponsored by Dilmah, the MJF Foundation, the Colombo Hilton, Alpha Orient Lanka Ltd and the Sunday Times.

Source: The Sunday Times, By Renuka Sadanandan