Discover a coffee-lovers’ paradise in Ethiopia’s sprawling Bale Mountains
Coffee is Ethiopia’s gift to the world and life’s true leveller, enjoyed by rich and poor. Rosemary Barron explores the country’s precious – and delicious – natural resources
Savour an aromatic, dark and strong cup of coffee in Manyate Village on the periphery of Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains National Park and you will never look at your high-street coffee shop in the same way again. Coffee (coffea arabica) grows wild here, and the locals know exactly how to prepare it.
In a sankate tulu (traditional thatched-roof house), my host Munisa Usman brews coffee from forest-gathered beans – pan-roasted and ground in the village – in a jebana (clay jug with a lid) set over charcoal. This ceremony – a symbol of hospitality, friendship and an essential part of any negotiation – requires thoughtfulness and skill. It’s a moment to share with others. Munisa offers the first small cup (abole) to her guests and elders, refills the jebana with water and brews the grounds a second (tona) and third (baraka) time. This third cup represents a blessing to you from the host.
The Bale Mountains sit 400km south-east of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s vibrant capital on the edge of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. The road south out of the city, known as ‘the lakes road’, takes you through Oromiya, the largest of the country’s nine states. Soon, clusters of traditional houses and tall, domed stacks of teff (a grain) surrounded by protective brush fences appear alongside the two-lane highway. Local drivers are adept at guessing the direction that the donkeys, goats and distinctive hump-backed zebu cattle will bolt – the animals assign themselves right of way.
Donkeys are the hauliers here, transporting crops, firewood and the villagers who come to the roadside to sell their onions, potatoes and watermelons to passers-by. Oxen tethered together with a pole plough fields of teff and vegetables which are separated from the road by wide gullies that quickly fill with water during the rains. Small hoteela (hotels) line the highway as it passes through larger settlements and many offer a few simple dishes – fish fillets fried in batter and sprinkled with tiny nigra (black mustard) seeds, cabbage cooked with garlic, long green beans, beetroot and the ubiquitous bowl of scorching-hot chillies.
Lake Ziway, a large freshwater lake 160km south of Addis Ababa, is close to where ‘Lucy’, an incomplete
‘The coffee ceremony – a symbol of hospitality, friendship and an essential part of any negotiation – requires thoughtfulness and skill. It ’s a moment to share’
human skeleton believed to be 3.2 million years old, was discovered by scientists in 1974. And there is still a marvellous synergy between man and the other residents here today.
As the lake’s fishermen fillet their Nile perch (tilapia), they throw the guts to dozens of marabou storks waiting patiently a few metres away. Standing at more than 1m tall, the ‘undertaker birds’ rarely fish themselves – they rely on humans to do the work – but they are excellent scavengers: each afternoon they leave the gutting area perfectly clean for the next day. Spoonbills, ibises, egrets, pelicans and herons wade in the still waters as the distant mountains turn from blue-grey to hazy violet in the afternoon sun. The surreal beauty is further enhanced when a young woman and her mischievous children pass us and an elegant man driving a horse and trap doffs his straw hat and smiles as he rides into the shallows towards a canopied boat.
Further south, the landscape becomes more arid and small cemeteries featuring tombstones adorned with the Islamic star and crescent appear alongside villages. We stay overnight on the edge of Lake Langano at Bishangari Lodge, where chef Ararsa Henbeta tells me: ‘I grew up 40km away, so I’m familiar with the local foods. However, we had no lake nearby so now I enjoy cooking tilapia and our beef, as both spice so well. I also love the range of foods that grow here – tropical mango and papaya, cool carrots and cucumbers. And our wild honey is deep amber gold,’ he says, pointing towards a barrel-shaped hive in the branches of a tree.
The next day we wake in time to witness the dawn antics of monkeys, large yellow-billed hornbills – known locally as flying bananas – and hippos before continuing our journey to the Bale Mountains. The road soon turns east and heads through Shashemene, the Rastafarian capital of Ethiopia. A farmer ploughing his field with his oxen pauses to explain his crop rotation. ‘I have sorghum (a grain), onions, corn and lentils. I also have a cow, three goats and a donkey. And this is where I sleep to protect them from the wild animals,’ he says, pointing to a small, single-room wooden house on stilts in the middle of the field.
We finally enter the Bale Mountains National Park, where the flat and swampy grasslands are a paradise of birds – waxbills, thrushes, hornbills, coots – regal deer with huge antlers, dark grey hogs with sweeping tusks and monkeys that are as curious about us as we are of them. I catch the scent of wild fennel and less familiar herbs.
Reaching the Sanetti Plateau (4,000m, rising to 4,377m), it’s cold and, at first glance, barren except for tall, sentinel-like flowers that bloom once then die. Then our guide, Yonas Amare, spots a lone and beautiful Ethiopian wolf, the world’s most rare and endangered canid, and the plateau comes alive to my less observant eye.
Descending through the cloud, a fairy tale landscape of tall ferns and giant heather shrubs covered in hanging moss appears, as do bamboo-framed houses with wattle walls
and grass roofs blackened by smoke from the wood fires inside. Lower still, through the evergreen Harenna Forest – the secondlargest forest in Ethiopia – we reach Bale Mountain Lodge (2,380m).
As we relax over a glass of Rift Valley wine with the ecolodge’s co-owner Yvonne Levene, she tells me: ‘Our electricity comes from a micro hydropower system on a nearby river; our water is purified by slow sand filtering; our kitchen waste is minimal and we use locally grown food. Honey, coffee and many of the fruits we enjoy are from the forest and we buy vegetables in our local market.’
On our menu is tibs – fried lamb, cooked outside over an open fire in a huge dish that is first oiled with fatty lamb tail, plus tilapia from Ziway and myriad pulse dishes.
‘I especially love to cook habesha (traditional) foods such as shiro (chickpea mash) and doro wot (chicken and
‘The surreal beauty is further enhanced when a young woman and her children pass us’
hard-boiled eggs in a spicy sauce), a dish for special occasions,’ Addis-born chef Esayas (Isiah) Tesfaye tells me. ‘And I like to make ferenje (foreign) dishes – beef in spiced sauce, sticky banana pudding, teff pasta and pancakes with mango ice cream – using local ingredients to prove how good they are. We make our injera (pancakes) and kita (flatbreads) the same way our neighbours do, over a wood-burning clay stove with a clay hotplate fitted on top.’
One of the lodge’s cooks, Saida, shows me how to make injera. ‘My firewood is here,’ she says, pointing to a large, neat stack. ‘I mixed the teff three days ago.’ Sitting behind the fire, she wipes a round pan with oil and stokes the fire with a stick. Working quickly and steadily, she pours the slightly fermented batter out of a clay pot on to the pan and, with a broad brush and bold hand, wipes it to the edges. A flat lid goes on top, she waits 30 seconds, then removes the lid to release a cloud of steam. With her hands, Saida gently lifts any edges that she thinks need neatening, and waits a few seconds longer. Wood smoke perfumes the air as she transfers the thin bread to a growing stack a few metres away, stokes the fire and starts the process all over again.
In nearby Dolo Mena, Shambal Habte leads us through his courtyard and past a large pile of bright red chillies to a shaded table where we enjoy bayonetu (or bayayenet) – injera topped with small mounds of shiro, shredded cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, onion, lentils, avocado (a seasonal luxury) and berbere (a spice mix). It takes some practice to eat injera with elegance: with your right hand, tear off a piece of the bread then scoop up the vegetables little by little. St George beer and cinnamon-spiced tea are welcome drinks with these searing hot but flavoursome foods.
Tuesday is market day in the village of Rira. After buying forest honey, spices and armfuls of tukur goman (an iron-rich dark leaf cabbage), we relish dishes of ground barley mixed with butter, turmeric-spiced potatoes, chechebsa (shredded kita served with honey and slightly soured butter) and cups of aromatic coffee at Harenna Hoteela. On our way back to the lodge, we stop to pick pretty, fragrant wild thyme (tosign) to dry out for tea.
This glorious, fragile environment is home to many rare and endemic species of reptiles, rodents, amphibians, birds, lions, monkeys and exquisitely patterned butterflies. It’s also home to one of the world’s most cherished foods – wild honey. Collecting it is something of a community activity. The bamboo-bound hives, set high in the trees, are often tricky to reach. Three men help Said, an expert honey gatherer, with his ascent. One throws a thick rope up and over a branch above the hive, then wraps the lower end around Said’s waist. Another lights a large bundle of dry grass and hands it, smouldering, to Said, who climbs the tree, reaches out and carefully holds it under the hive. The bees then leave and Said scoops out as much honey as he can place into his cowhide pouch before descending, still carefully suspended by his mate.
The flavour of wild honey varies with the blossom – hagenia abyssinica (east African rosewood) is a popular tree for hives and coffee is a favourite – and it’s usually collected twice a year (December and May). After this dangerous
work, I could only say ‘amansekanado’ (thank you or, literally, ‘I praise you’) and offer to shake Said’s sticky hand. Though here, if you have been using your hands and haven’t had a chance to wash them, this is done by knocking wrists.
The food, dishes and traditions of Ethiopia are already of interest to nutritionists. Now scientists are turning their attention to wild foods and their importance to our diet. It’s no coincidence that research is showing coffee has health values when it’s organically grown, processed without additives and boiled – exactly the way the magic bean is produced and enjoyed here.