Sri Lankan Sojourns: The Spice Trail.
Historians and chefs would generally agree that Sri Lanka is the cradle of the ancient spice trade.
Brunyfire’s own culinary journey had been naturally influenced by spices: from the buffet curries in smart hotels to the deep fried street samosas, to the spiced and pickled fruits of the Galle Face Green vendors and the fiery kiri hodi (chili sauce) accompanying our breakfast hoppers.
As we pass through Matale, yet another large town situated in the middle of the country, in the Central Province on the way to Kandy from Sigiriya, a visit to one of the many spice gardens here was on the itinerary. Surrounded by the Knuckles Mountain Range, Matale is mainly an agricultural area, where tea, rubber, vegetable and spice cultivation dominate.
However, a cautionary note here!
We stopped at the Oak-Ray Isiwara Ayurvedic Village where I suspect our driver, Jaga, had a commission arrangement. No sooner had we emerged from our vehicle, when we were introduced to our guide of the garden. It soon became apparent that the information about the medicinal and culinary properties of the spices grown here were just a pre-sales pitch and we ended up spending a small fortune at the shop – more fool us!!
Needless to say – the gardens were beautifully kept.The ubiquitous coconut proved its versatility once again. Each of the trees within the small spice plantation were set within raised beds of quartered coconut husks. These are replaced annually when they have just about decomposed, but before they do, they act as water soaks for the trees they surround. Absorbing water after a good drenching, the moisture is gradually released throughout the day thus never allowing the raised bed to dry out.
Coconut coir (the dry fibrous material found between the outer husk and the inner nut) is also used to produce the rope that Sri Lankans use for almost everything – from the ropes attached at breathtaking heights between the coconut trees (to collect toddy) to building their adobe style buildings.
Coir rope is made by spinning the coir fibers via a crude, but efficient bicycle wheel………….………each spun strand is then fed through another Heath Robinson affair and wound together to create a strong rope – ingeniously simple.
Cocoa production is on the increase in Sri Lanka and is considered a valuable tree for complimentary planting with coconut and rubber trees.Apparently, Sri Lanka’s cocoa is considered some of the best in the world – but it’s production is a time consuming business, the cocoa needs to be nurtured (it takes four years to mature and bear fruit) before profits can be returned and so local farmers feel they are unable to afford the wait.
One of the first herbs we’re introduced to is cinnamon, a Sri Lankan native, and the reason why colonial domination over the centuries occurred. The cinnamon is a tree that is cut back when it is two years old to create young side saplings, and it is these that the bark is stripped from………………….and put to dry, curling naturally into the product that we all know. Green, red, black and white peppercorns all come from the same tree. Firstly green, red as they ripen, black when they are fully ripened, and white when the outer black covering of the fully ripened peppercorn is removed.A native of Mexico, vanilla nevertheless does well in the damp soils of Matale. As it requires a lot of hand-processing, vanilla is an expensive herb to harvest and so its production is thus confined to small holdings. When harvested, vanilla beans are green, odorless and flavorless and it takes months of curing, fermenting and drying to produce the dark brown, nearly black color and characteristic fragrance.
Ironically, hankering for our first decent coffee since departing for our Sri Lankan sojourn, we head to Hobart’s Fullers Bookshop, a regular and favourite haunt (for a cook book fanatic). Instead of the caffeine hit we’d so craved, we come across the cafe’s newly introduced ‘seven spice Sri Lankan chai’ from Craig McKenzie of grounded pleasures.It’s so nice to be home………