KUALA LUMPUR, May 21 — The subject of a good cuppa is somewhat inescapable, especially when you are in the company of Malaysia’s very own tea authority Caroline Russell.
For the Boh Plantations chief executive officer, tea is very much an individual preference — there is no right or wrong way to enjoy it, despite the snobbery surrounding tea, much like wine.
The English have their ‘milk in first or last’ debate, for which Russell happily provides an explanation. Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with better tasting tea.
“People used to have very delicate teacups in the old days and if you were to pour very hot tea into your fine bone China, it would crack. So the tradition of milk in first was really to insulate and protect your cup,” says Russell, who puts milk in second to gauge the strength of her tea and skips sugar for health reasons.
So do people get nervous serving this third-generation tea expert?
“I don’t think so and I hope not! That would be a bit horrid, wouldn’t it?” she exclaims.
As one of the oldest beverages in the world, tea is believed to have been discovered in China’s Fujian province by the Emperor Shennong when a tea leaf flew into his pot of boiling water.
“Tea first became popular because the boiled water sanitised the water so you could be safe drinking tea,” says Russell.
“It developed into an artform in a lot of ancient cultures — in China, Japan, India — which are some of the more ancient tea drinking nations, but India less so because tea was imported into India by the British.”
From the classic British afternoon tea to Morocco’s love for mint tea, the beverage is at the heart of many cultures.
But what can you tell about a culture that enjoys tea?
“I think it is part of an ancient culture, instilled in tradition and it was something where you took time out to do it,” says Russell.
“It wasn’t a drink on the go or a drink of convenience but there were rituals around its preparation and rituals about how you drink it.”
Whether it’s an elaborate Japanese chanoyu ceremony that can last up to four hours or a quick teh tarik stop at the local mamak, the way we drink tea changes all the time, largely influenced by lifestyles.
Russell observes that these trends go in cycles.
“In countries like the United Kingdom, there’s been some sort of revival of the more connoisseur market — from being something where people look for the most convenient product, there is now more emphasis on the ritual.”
While fluidity in trends make for an interesting market, others such as the weather are not so welcome. As temperatures soar, tea plantations throughout the globe become increasingly vulnerable — including Boh’s estates in Cameron Highlands.
“Tea in Malaysia depends on having an even distribution of rainfall and particularly this year and the other El Nino years, we see a lot of volatility in rainfall and this is not good for tea,” Russell says, adding the Sungei Palas estate only received 3mm of rainfall in March.
To put things into perspective, 180mm rainfall sits in the low category while 150mm is considered especially low.
“Protracted draughts not only have an impact on yield but will ultimately kill your tea,” Russell says.
Cool climates are known to produce more flavourful teas but if temperatures continue to rise, the quality of Boh’s teas will be compromised in the long run although it will more likely impact their crop first.
For now, Russell isn’t losing sleep over the fate of her tea estates in an increasingly volatile climate but revealed the limited ability to irrigate tea in the highlands if water resources run dry.
On top of tea duties, Russell keeps busy with her two children as well as championing the arts — something Boh has been passionate about as early as the 1950s. It was Russell and the former owners of Kakiseni who joined forces to establish the Boh Cameronian Awards.
For the past 13 years, the country’s first ever arts awards has been actively supporting and recognising Malaysian talents and Russell liked how “it wasn’t supporting one group in particular.”
Born and raised in Malaysia, Russell admits she speaks “very good kitchen Bahasa” and understands basic French.
As a young girl, she would often visit the Boh plantations which her grandfather John Archibald Russell founded in 1929. These days, Russell says Cameron Highlands “isn’t the sleepy little hollow that it used to be”.
Reminiscing about her fondest memories, Russell shares: “The outdoors and being in the open and Cameron’s from an environmental perspective was really a beautiful place with clean air and natural beauty.”
As a tea lover and bona fide connoisseur, the well-heeled traveller says she increasingly packs tea in her suitcase.
“Sometimes you get served the most rotten tea and you have to have your own at hand so you don’t have to subject yourself to it,” she quips, before adding, “my husband is even more fiddly with tea than I am and will make sure he’s got his own blend with him.”
While there are no rules when it comes to how to drink a cup of tea, brewing methods are essential, especially when it comes to black tea. Russell shares two tips on brewing the perfect cup of black tea.
1. Boiling hot water
“Green tea, white tea and other teas have different traditions in water temperature but with black tea, it must be boiling! One of the worst crimes is to use water that is not hot enough. Some places give you hot water and a teabag on the side — there couldn’t be a worse way to make tea.”
2. Use freshly boiled water
“You’re not going to get a good cup of tea (with reboiled water) because all the oxygen in the water has gone off and the oxygen in the water helps the tea with its brewing.” – MMO