Before we headed off on our accidental tour of the national park, we had intended to visit the Bois Chéri Tea Factory, the first tea plantation in Mauritius, dating back to 1892. We were obviously sidetracked, but we decided to make the one-hour bus trip again, now that we had the route figured out. We were advised to visit early in the day as most of the “action” takes place in the morning when freshly picked tea is brought in, machines are in operation and the workers are busy doing tea processing things.
We arrived around 0930 and joined a tour immediately. The entry fee of 500 Rps ($17 ea) seemed a bit steep, in our estimation. The guided tour lasted about 20 minutes and provided information about tea processing from picking to withering to cutting, fermentation, sorting and packaging. It's a small operation and although machines are used, the processing is still extremely labor intensive.
There was a small one-room “museum” which offered a bit about the history of tea and its arrival in Mauritius. There used to be several plantations, but now only a couple. Mauritius can't compete with world markets. What they grow now is primarily for domestic use and small export quantities to Reunion Island and France.
We always learn something new though. For instance, the Chinese are credited with discovering and developing tea as a beverage as early as 3000BC. Originally used as a medicinal drink, tea later evolved into a culture all its own. Lu Yu, is considered the Sage of Tea, having written The Classic of Tea (in Chinese Ch'a Ching – really?), around 760 AD, the first definitive work on cultivating, making and drinking tea. The Portuguese picked it up while visiting China and they brought it to the UK. Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world next to water and the Irish are the biggest tea consumers per capita in the world. An Irish-American, Thomas Sullivan, is credited with inventing and patenting the first tea bag.
The highlight of the tour was supposedly the tea tasting in the tea room which happened to be about 2km from the factory along a beautiful country road, lined with trees and flowers. The tour guides were rather perplexed that we arrived by bus instead of with a tour group or taxi and were on foot. We happily walked to the tea room. We passed by several tea fields. Tea pickers, women stooped over and intent, were still at work, choosing only the tiny, tender tea leaves for picking.
The tea bushes were so close to the side of the road, it was easy to examine them pretty closely. We observed the flowers and the seeds as well as the lush, shiny green leaves themselves.
We always see so much more when we walk. Waxy red, pink and white anthurium bloomed in the damp glades. Ornamental pineapple, pandanus palms and fern trees lined the road as we got closer to the tea house. We saw a herd of deer, lazing and grazing in a meadow. The smell of gardenias and jasmine perfumed the morning air. It was delightful.
We turned a corner and the lake and the tea house came into view, a lovely sight despite the overcast sky. They claim in ancient times, this was a volcanic crater.
Once we reached the tea house, our vantage point from the top of the hill allowed us to see for miles in all directions.
The tea tasting was great. Twelve teas were set out on the table and hot water was brought in a tea pot to our table along with sweet biscuits (cookies), milk and raw sugar. It was a lovely presentation. We tried plain black tea, then vanilla flavored, coconut flavored, tropical fruit (yuck), bergamot (Earl Grey) and a myriad of green teas. We sampled most of them and paid later on in the day when we needed to pee every half hour. Not good when you're traveling on a local bus.
The restaurant at Bois Cheri is just lovely. The food is gourmet and they utilize local produce including tea as inspiration for their culinary creations. I had crevettes (shrimp) in a traditional Mauritian red sauce served with a hearts of palm salad and saffron rice with pine nuts. Delish! David had medallions of roast duck with a honey tea sauce, salad and a potato puree that was out of this world. We tried the specialty ti punch made with local rum, cane sugar syrup and limes. For dessert, we had bananas flambee again with local vanilla bean ice cream. The waiter brought us a sample of the local vanilla rum as a complimentary after-dinner drink. A most memorable meal.
After such a great meal, the 2km walk back was most welcome. We chatted amiably, holding hands as we sauntered along the road, taking in the views and watching the world go by.