Moun­tain brew

Dis­cover a cof­fee-lovers’ par­adise in Ethiopia’s sprawl­ing Bale Moun­tains

Food and Travel (UK) - - Contens - PHOTOGRAPHY BY ULF SVANE

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.

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