Nov 242014
 

The Very Best Cup in the World

Coffee is the social glue of Ethiopian culture. You don’t just pop in for a quick cup at a friend’s house. The coffee ceremony is to these people what the tea ceremony is the Japanese.

Wild coffee is still gathered in the highland forests: Ethiopia is where coffee originates and wild coffee is the very best, I promise you that. First the beans have to be roasted over a charcoal fire in a metal urn. That takes about half an hour. All the while into another pot with coals frankincense is thrown and the smoke from that fills the room.

When the beans start to toast they have to be tended carefully, because that is when you determine whether you want a light, medium or dark roast. Dark is the only way here. When the beans are all blackened the roasting pan is taken off the fire. A tall clay coffee pot filled with water is put on the fire while the beans are spooned into a stone mortar and pounded extremely finely using a metal, crow-bar looking pestle.

This takes up to 10 minutes, all the while the frankincense is replenished. Personally I thought the smell of roasting coffee beans was adequate, but you cannot change a culture that is at least 4,000 years old. Frankincense, myrrh as well as coffee was exported from here to Egypt and Persia as far back as 2,000 BC, it is written.

The finely ground coffee is then spooned into the coffee pot and left to brew for a few minutes. It’s nearly time. However, you cannot serve coffee on its own. A platter of chachabessa – chapatti like flat bread – is passed around. It in turn is served with a spicy barberry sauce.

While we were staying at the Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela (we went there with Vast Ethiopian Tours), hotel manager Moges Fentaw invited us to participate in the coffee ceremony in the dining room, before the other noisy guests filled the room and proceeded to gulp down the day’s brew.

The best cup of coffee we have ever had - a Coffee Ceremony at Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela. Ethiopia.

The best cup of coffee we have ever had – a Coffee Ceremony at Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela. Ethiopia.

We were also treated to the special, first brew – there would be a second and a third fill for the punters, but that first one is the piece de resistance of the coffee world. It was not bitter at all, as we had expected it to be, with a hint of dark chocolate.

This is how it’s bean done for thousands of years, and no upstart cup served in Milan, Seattle or Cape Town comes close.

Nov 242014
 

From Out of the Strength Came Forth Sweetness

Honey plays a central role in the food of all pre-industrial societies. The Western World’s oldest text, the Old Testament or Talmud, tells of much about honey. For the Bushmen of the Kalahari it is edible gold. You could kill a person for raiding one of your hives. Even today in Ethiopia wild honey is a basic food group.

Could we have some butter for out breakfast toast, we asked waiter Habtamu Getachew in the Mountain View Hotel. (There are no surnames as we know them. Getachew is his father’s name; children, boys at any rate, take their father’s name as their surname.)
No butter.
Could we then have some margarine (yuk)?
No margarine.
What could we have then?
Honey. Wild honey.
Okay fine. Lovely. And why are you looking so tired.

Our waiter Habtamu Getachew at the Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Our waiter Habtamu Getachew at the Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Turns out Habtamu had been up all night at church, at a service to which we had been invited but ducked out of. We’d been up at around 4:30 am each day to get to the stone churches to get the photography done before the noisy tourists arrived at 9 am sharp each day. Which is when we’d retire back to the hotel for breakfast.

Habtamu told us whenever he has a day off he walks about five hours to his family home down the valley, not far from where King Lalibela was born at Kudues Harbe. There he goes and collects wild honey. Honey in this place is much than just sweet food. Honey is the only food that never spoils, it has a mild antibiotic action and can be used to cover burns, among its many wondrous properties. It is quite simply nature’s wonder food.

When a young minor prince was born, nearly 1,000 years ago in the north of the ancient kingdom of Axum, a swarm of bees surrounded the crib. “Lalibela” cried his royal mother, “the bees recognise his sovereignty!” There was a belief that animals could foretell important events.

The child was named Lalibela. He did eventually become king and it was he who, apparently, directed by God, built the 11 stone churches here that are now a World Heritage Site and one of the man-made wonders of the world. They are hewn from the volcanic rock mountainside. But what is most amazing about them is how they were constructed.

Actually they were deconstructed – the rock had to be tunnelled into and then, instead of building from the ground up, all the negative spaces inside the subterranean churches had to be chiseled away. Conceptually, it was a feat of extraordinary genius. From the strength of solid rock, was wrought fantastical architectural sweetness.