Whilst you gaze across the beautiful hills surrounding Jetwing Warwick Gardens House, you will see the familiar sight of well kept but random scatterings of tea bushes lining the hills for miles around and some vibrant and colourful saris expertly picking their way through little sections of it. This would be the known face of the old Ceylon and its tea plantations but what you might not know is that just as the ‘Great White Queen’ (Victoria and tea) was coming into flower from 1864, ‘King Coffee’ once reigned supreme as the first monoculture, originally traded from Yemen through the Arabic vendors doing business with the Dutch, to successfully transform the hill country of Sri Lanka and sow the seeds for the success of the tea industry. After the fall of cinnamon as Ceylon’s finest spice export, the British tried to grow sugar, cotton and then indigo before successfully developing Arabica coffee on a grand scale from the 1840s. Coffee mania took a great hold over the hills just as a ‘speck on the horizon’ made its grim appearance to reap itsown harvest of leaf death, namely Hemilia Vastatrix the Destroyer, or coffee rust, over the next two decades to cause its final demise as a cash crop by the early 1880s. The King is dead, long live the King, many proclaimed as tea took over.
Warwick Special Brew – coffee to lift the spirit
Sitting here now at the grand three inch thick dining-room table of Warwick Gardens House my imagination has been fired by the truly general manager of all things relating to Warwick, Mohammed Faris. Passionate about so much around him including the house, the estate and the village community below, Faris has since 2004 turned his passion to growing exceptional Arabica coffee for guests to learn about and enjoy and maybe, just maybe to establish him as the next King Coffee, though he tells me he intends to merge with the Great White Queen Tea in his endeavours.
It seems the main problem with the destruction of coffee in the later 1800s was monoculture, which allows the easy spread of such diseases as rust. Or perhaps Vestatrix the Destroyer was “meant and sent to earth for a purpose” to use one of Faris’s philosophical quotes, to bring down those that would exploit others and turn peace into mania. This will not be a problem for Faris as he has the deepest respect for all parts of his environment and takes extra special care of the people around him. “Moving a rock or a branch may be destroying the purpose it was sent for so do it with care” he says, an indication of his special style. Tea compliments coffee and vice versa when it comes to providing barriers for each other in a symbiotic way. The landscape is further beautified by coffee bushes, as they have a waxy cuticle that glimmers in the distance when the sun shines.
Faris has a small plantation of coffee trees and has recently planted 350 more trees. Once established, continuous pruning is required to make the bush grow evenly and to stimulate the most berries. They are called berries, red when ripe, at this stage and only become beans when they have been stripped of their skin and sugar lining through a process whereby they are soaked in the stream in a gunny bag and then stamped on. Any berries not suitable for picking are left for the wildlife to promote growth in all parts of this ecosystem. The beans are then double roasted through indirect heat and are considered ready when they make a specific cracking noise when crunched between the teeth. The aroma of this high caffeine, easy-picking variety is strong but can be further enhanced by adding sugar and butter at the end of the roasting process. Masala coffee can be made by roasting the beans with coriander and ginger. The beans are then crushed in a giant granite mortar with a large wooden pestle to create the final delight of a high strength rich smelling coffee. Faris tells me that you can just rub a small amount of it in liquid form onto your lip and then feel it hitting the back of your head in an instant with that familiar stimulating feeling that, if not overdone, helps boost the immune system and general well being.
When asked what his inspiration to grow coffee was or is he answers swiftly and confidently “Books about the old planting days, particularly one that documents, through beautiful sketches, a rags to riches story of a plantation and the story of the New Peacock estate. I also want the guests to be able to get involved in the whole process and understand how coffee is made.” And of course he loves to drink it almost as much as tea.
We then walk down to his coffee plantation next to the garden that is full of all kinds of fruit trees, delicious vegetables and healthy herbs. He points out a ladybird on one of the plants and tells me this is a sign of a healthy crop. I agree and remember that they also eat aphids that often carry viruses that might also ruin other monoculture crops that are less likely to support ladybirds and where the grower might even have killed them off with pesticides. Gravity sprinklers are running all over the garden due to the unseasonal warm and dry weather and I ask if climate change is having an effect on his garden. “Yes, yields are considerably down as a result of climate change” but unexpectedly he believes the 2004 tsunami to be the main cause of climate change in Sri Lanka.
Just as we get to the coffee trees I spot a small pile of unroasted coffee beans about the size of my fist and wonder what kind of skulduggery could have taken place here. How did these get here I asked, totally bemused. “They come from a rodent” says Faris modestly and being of farming stock I realise he means they have passed through the digestive system of such, which of course gives me a brilliant idea for an alternative processing method for his lovely red berries. Coffee produced by this method could be called Warwick Secret Brew methinks.