Book Review – Wisdom in the Leaf – A Generation of tea inspired knowledge

Graeme Tissera (2021)

First published in Sri Lanka by Dilmah Tea Company PLC 2020 Text – Multiple Authors

A Review by Graeme Tissera - Senior Tea Professional

The Sri Lankan tea academia, tea enthusiasts and the tea community at large, would no doubt consider it a rare privilege to have an opportunity to enrich their tea libraries with an authentic, Sri Lankan home grown publication on the art of tea. When such a volume contains an abundance of practical and technical learnings, most of which if left unrecorded could very well be lost forever to the erosion of time, it takes on an even more important and meaningful connotation in terms of its value. Amongst the many challenges that the Sri Lanka tea trade faced in the Black Swan year that was 2020, there were precious few bright healing moments. The publication of the book “Wisdom in the leaf” which was produced by Dilmah Ceylon Tea Company PLC, is perhaps one such moment. To the passionate tea connoisseur, avid tea scholar and keen student of Sri Lanka’s tea agronomy, it can be construed to be the proverbial shinning White Swan event in an otherwise gloomy year. A refreshing recalibration of the contemporary art of tea, with a distinct vintage Sri Lankan tea planting flavour, perhaps as definitive in aroma and bouquet as one of Dilmah’s authentic and refined Pure Ceylon tea blends.

The book is a fitting tribute to the Patriarch of Dilmah, Merrill J Fernando, on completing a momentous seventy years in tea. The father of Dilmah has created and nurtured the company, the brand and the Dilmah identity over a prolonged period. Much of that brand image permeates beyond the realms of tea, into perhaps the even more important spheres of Philanthropy, Human Service, Christian Stewardship and Environmental Initiatives. Amongst the numerous batons this iconic leader still carries firmly, one was perhaps symbolically handed over with the publication of this book. The release of such a pool of tea knowledge can only serve to improve and foster the art of tea, the true learnings of which must and need to survive the rigors of time, by being graciously handed down through the subsequent generations of tea connoisseurs and tea aficionados.

The publication is an offspring of the Dilmah History Of Ceylon Tea (HOCT) website. This comprehensive data base is a fountain of Sri Lankan tea information, imagery and literary works of historic and contemporary times. Dilhan Fernando, the CEO of Dilmah, very aptly articulates in his foreword, “We cannot look to the future of tea, without understanding its past and present”. Whilst the HOCT website fulfills this purpose in gradually piecing together the journey of Ceylon Tea, the book, as its literary prodigy, underscores a vital part of that understanding.

Wisdom in the tea leaf is edited by David Colin-Thome, who was a career tea taster with the company many years prior, before exploring greener pastures overseas. David has subsequently returned to play an indelible role in the HOCT project and was the critical driving force behind the publishing of the book. His preface enlightens the reader on the monumental task that was undertaken, in terms of coordinating and overseeing activities, a role that can only be successfully concluded, by a personality with the same inherent affinity for the product of tea, as that which emanates from the company he represents.

David and his publication committee team have structured the book into a comprehensive work of 12 broad sections, under the following topics of content -

  • Personal Development
  • Human Resources
  • Agricultural Practices
  • Factory and Manufacturing Practices
  • Forestry and Conservation
  • Water Resource Management
  • Diversification
  • Buildings and Housing
  • Financial Accounting and Control
  • Transport
  • Climate Change Adaptation
  • From the World of Science

The writings trace a landscape that encompasses a fascinating version of a corporate tea plantation management journal of Sri Lanka. The areas of discussion also extend to relevant, indelibly connected, techno-agricultural and environmental disciplines, which have been categorized under the scientific banner.

A diverse view on each area has been encouraged, through the accommodating of multiple contributors for certain topics of discussion. Although this creates a degree of content overlap, an alternative professional position on a common subject, differentiated by the specific practical experience of each contributor, presents a fascinating comparative read. It serves to provide the reader with a more wholesome understanding, which adds value overall.

The literary contributions on tea come from the creme de la creme of tea plantation management personalities of yesteryear. Doyens of tea plantation enterprise, all of whom who almost appear to have tea agronomy and tea manufacture as part of their biological DNA. They are all career tea planters and tea agricultural professionals, with a fond affinity for the well-being of an industry that they have devoted most of their lives to. Their input is compelling and distinctive of some of the finest eras in the journey of tea plantation management in Sri Lanka. They have all offered engaging practical discourse on the specific areas assigned to them. Their literary contributions enliven invaluable, lesser known, hands-on experiences, some of which may perhaps appear oblivious to the theorists. The publication is very much a celebration of their life’s work, a fitting tribute to a group of true tea plantation stalwarts, as well as the documenting of a generation of tea inspired knowledge, as appropriately selected as the tagline of the book. The scientific contributors are as distinguished in profile, projecting persona of educated distinction and enhanced learning. The publication is enriched by their literary input which encompass spectra so vital to the future of tea.

Whilst the work is in part a source of practical tea planting acumen, many of the contributors have indeed made balanced and incisive reference to technical scientific guidance. This aspect in particular forms part of the identity of the book, since the overwhelming image of the work is that of a premium blend of the practical hands-on management approach of seasoned experts, together with the use of scientific technical reference as and when required. The practical and scientific approaches to plantation management are two areas which have been in conflict in the past. The inevitable deliberation around this aspect has been afforded interesting context by Anura Gunasekera, in his absorbing prologue, where he writes “It is they, the planters, who can vouch for the practicality of the theory and what needs to be done in the field, or in the factory, on a large commercial scale, to endorse what is propounded by science through research on a micro scale”

It is very possible that this book will be an example through which the complimentary aspects of tea expertise and tea science, embrace each other in their journey forward, since it is surely their combined practical and technical erudition that will present Sri Lanka tea with a competitive edge in the future.

The scope of the individual writings embraces every aspect of tea plantation management. The directional flow of the book has been finely sectionally crafted, commencing with the role of the budding planter (Creeper), through to aspects such as skills acquisition, leadership, human resources, staff welfare / training and development. This initial segment culminates with a detailed, fascinating paper on the journey of tea plantation trade unionism, which traces the roots of the movement, through to its contemporary status quo and perceived future relevance. This piece is a revealing informative brief, on an influence that has such a profound impact on the success of tea plantation enterprise in Sri Lanka.

The section on Agricultural Practices consists of a series of absorbing papers, with a fine blend of technical and practical erudition, which is an excellent reference guide for any student of tea. It is a comprehensive work that encompasses the entire tea agricultural process flow, from identification and preparation of suitable lands, nursery management, selection of planting material, planting through to bearing, harvesting, pruning, tipping, cultivation and manuring and nutrient management. Other important aspects such as trace elements, disease and pest management, weed management and shade policy are also duly represented. This segment, by virtue of its extensive content, is very much the nucleus of the book.

The balance contributions deal with diverse aspects, describing the critically important area of tea manufacture, along with a paper on factory management. Some basic, fundamental explanations on the art of tea tasting are also included. It was particularly pleasing to observe the emphasis and priority afforded to conservation initiatives, as articulated through the very engaging writings on Forestry and Conservation, Water Resource Management and Climate Change Adaptation.

The book closes with a riveting segment from the world of science, dealing with environmental aspects, amongst others. The very interesting contribution on Biochar, as a possible alternative to fertilizer, is demonstrative of a fresh, novel product, created through the sphere of Dilmah Conservation. The Health benefits of tea are also discussed and emphasize the wholesome depth that contemporary tea commands, over and above the more constrained value of being a mere refreshing drink.

It is evident from the contributions, that certain authors have provided multiple works of exceedingly well researched writings. These are papers that excel as valuable insights, some of which are almost scholastic in nature. The readers of the book will count themselves fortunate, to be enriched by that generation of tea inspired knowledge. It is of little doubt that part of the legacy of these contributors, will be indelibly entrenched within the annals of this book. Therefore, this publication would serve as one prime medium, through which the pearls of wisdom associated with and within the tea leaf, are transferred to subsequent generations of tea afficionados.

Suffice to say, that “Wisdom in the leaf” is a highly recommended, essential inclusion to the library of the tea enthusiast. It is very much another gem in the Dilmah vault of tea. The company has had an amazing journey thus far and has been in the forefront of championing Ceylon tea for decades. Long may that continue. Whilst the conceptual identity and character of the book, is very much based on the agricultural and production aspects of tea, a reflective and inquiring mind may perhaps question the lack of marketing content. The answer of course, is that it has little or insignificant relevance in terms of this particular volume. The reality is that the Dilmah chapter on marketing Ceylon tea, is an ongoing live demonstration of their daily purpose. A work of passion in progress, the positive impact of which is evidenced by the enhanced global profile that brand Dilmah commands, at this stage of its journey. It is a corporate mission and a just-cause, that has concurrently uplifted and presented pure Ceylon tea as a compelling choice to the global tea consumer. Therefore, it is perhaps of more strategic and sustainable importance, that the priority focus remains within the realms of the wisdom in the leaf. In the greater scheme of things, there appears to be little doubt that it is Sri Lanka’s tea agricultural and tea production expertise, showcased and driven through a blend of practical and scientific acumen, that will continue to en-stamp Sri Lanka tea with a unique, intrinsic identity and presence. It is that exclusivity of flavour, aroma and bouquet, the creation and sustainability of which is so eloquently elucidated through the content of the book under review, that will continue to enrich those authentic and refined Dilmah pure Ceylon tea blends, in the years to come.

The publication is available at Dilmah t Lounges, Barefoot Gallery, Sarasavi Book Stores, Vijitha Yapa Book Stores in Sri Lanka and through the Dilmah online store https://shop.dilmahtea.com/tea-gifts/books/wisdom-in-the-leaf

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