Tea for two

One of the ultimate joys of my job is attending cookery courses around the world, and then sharing the experience with readers. I’ve completed a story for Sawubona that tells the tales of Tuscany, Peru, Mexico, Raymond Blanc in Oxfordshire and Morocco. Whilst we wait to see it in print in July, allow me tell you of one more.

The ‘Thelma and Louise’ trip to Sri Lanka simply had to include a cookery experience. Contacts connected and before we knew it, we had been invited to cook with the chef of Relais & Châteaux’s Cape Weligama resort, perched with enviable views of Weligama Bay below. We took an uphill ride in a tuk-tuk, grateful for the breeze in searing midday heat, to their iconic property, part of the trio of Resplendent Ceylon. We were welcomed with a guava sorbet on a stick wrapped in a banana leaf, and iced tea, no surprise as the property is owned by the Dilmah tea family.

Our eyes appreciated the attention to detail as we walked to the demonstration kitchen, perfectly positioned to encompass the view, where sous chef Vinnol told us what was in store for our taste buds – prawn and chicken curry, dhal curry, and bean curry. I was able to gently interrogate him about his culture, cuisine and ingredients. Vinnol Wickramasinghe, who honed his skills at the Hilton in Colombo, gladly shared his wealth of expertise with us as he chopped, stirred and set our mouths on fire. His father was in F&B as a career, and he demonstrated to his son how working in a hotel lets you see the best and worst of life, all under one roof.

“Sri Lankan food is indigenous and healthy. It is grown or picked or plucked from the sea,” he reminded us. The locals don’t ask if you have eaten today, they ask “have you eaten rice?”, giving an indication of how important rice is. You never hear the term ‘curry and rice’ – instead it is rice and curry! They eat with their fingers and their main meal is usually enjoyed at lunchtime. All dishes are served simultaneously, allowing for many flavours on a plate. He gave some good tips about working with chilli – wear gloves, keep your hands away from your eyes, freeze whole and add to a dish frozen. Add salt when cooking with chilli to prevent sneezing. Thelma and Louise looked on in awe as Vinnol fried his spices in very hot oil until smoke rose!

Curries are classified as either white (with coconut milk, mild with lots of liquid), red (few spices with lots of chilli) and black (typical, with roasted coriander, cumin and fennel). The essentials of the Sri Lankan kitchen are a wok, and pestle and mortar. Cooks seldom measure (my kinda cooks!). Tips included using coconut milk powder instead of the real deal, and that buffalo curd is healthier than our yoghurt. They use less lemons, more limes, and mustard cream is the secret ingredient in a curry. He introduced us to gorake, a very sour ingredient that I set off to source the next day.

The teardrop island, formerly known as Ceylon, is also known as the land without sorrows. I would call it the land without desserts – with a plethora of beautiful fresh tropical fruits there is no need to toil over a hot stove to create a sweet dessert. Vinnol thought otherwise, and quickly dashed off to bring us a portion of jaggery to bring our culinary feast to a close.

The private retreats, all 39 of them, are named after famous explorers who have passed on nautical journeys, like Marco Polo. A mere half-hour drive east of Galle, this luxury resort is on 12 acres 40 metres above the Indian Ocean. Sunsets are a drawcard, and the hotel has made the most of sunset points, one giving a good view of the famous stilt fishermen. As the sun set we made our way to the pool bar, and then off to the restaurant to experience more of Vinnol’s hospitality. Still feeling really full from our afternoon of cookery, I chose the spicy tuna starter (paired with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc), Thel the lemongrass chicken, with a glass of Cava. We shared Vinnol’s signature dish – barramundi with a cauliflower puree. Instead of dessert we finished our fabulous day with silver leaf tea.

The first of our Sri Lankan cookery classes was a huge success. If you are interested in getting your own group of food-lovers together to experience this wonderful cuisine in a half-day session, contact Natalie on rsvp@jhpr.co.za.

AND TALKING OF TEA

To celebrate mutual friend Irene’s milestone birthday, my friend Rose and I decided to treat her to high tea at the Belmond Mount Nelson, with a tea sommelier. We booked for a Friday, knowing that we could truly relax after the working week, and settled down for the 15h30 sitting on the patio in glorious sunshine. Oh we love autumn, and this oasis makes the most of the Mother City’s weather on a good day. We were welcomed by tea sommelier Daryl, who proved to be informative, obliging and at times, entertaining. My phone battery was flat, so I left it at reception on the way in. Daryl collected it when I wished to capture the beauty of our bounty, and even brought it to me on a tray with true Belmond aplomb!

We realized, as the savoury tier arrived laden with good-looking goodies, that we should have ordered gluten-free for Rose. Seamlessly and rapidly Daryl orchestrated a replacement for her, as delicious. She was given her own stand that combined sweet and savoury perfectly, whilst Irene and I wobbled our way to the table laden with an array of patisserie and cakes. Part of the treat was having Daryl talk us through the Belmond tea journey, explaining in detail the differences between the various loose leaf teas, and suggesting what we should order. I loved the lemon fruit infusion tea, the orange and berry green tea from China and the Nine Life spices blend (a harmonious blend of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, cloves, aniseed, rosemary and thyme). I have always loved the Mount Nelson hotel blend, so ignored it to try something new.

Daryl brought Irene a birthday plate, an artfully plated assortment of sweet treats that included her favourite, Turkish delight. As the lightest of scones with butter, jam and cream were served the trio of girls were aghast at the thought of eating any more. We quickly handed them over to our men who joined us for Champagne to toast what had been an unforgettable birthday.

At R365 per person, truly a gift to remember.