Monday, 27 May 2019

Sri Lankan Spice

It came as quite a surprise to many to discover that one of the several ‘hats’ I wear is Honorary Council General for Sri Lanka to Ireland…

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The 3,000 plus Sri Lankan community in Ireland are of course aware but it wasn’t until the tragic events in late April when I attended mass in the St Mary’s Pro Cathedral, celebrated by Archbishop Martin for the victims of the massacre that my connection became more public.
I accepted the honorary role in November 2017 on the invitation of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe…. who visited Ireland and Ballymaloe Cookery School over Christmas period in 2015.


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Our Sri Lankan lunch for some of the Sri Lankan community and dignitaries, here at Ballymaloe Cookery School.
I’ve visited Sri Lanka many times, an astoundingly beautiful country, lush, green and fertile with delicious food and warm and friendly people who have endured  many years of turbulence but had recently become accustomed to a more peaceful era.
Sri Lankan tea is some of the finest in the world. I’ve visited the tea plantations and seen at first hand the care and dedication that is involved, from the hand picking of the ‘tips’ of the Camellia Sinensis, tea bush to the drying, withering, grading….
Sri Lankan tea pickers. Image: http://nagenahiru.org/women-plantation-workers/
It is important that the Sri Lankan tea industry remains glyphosate free at a time when there is a growing concern worldwide among scientists and the general public about the toxic effects of pesticides.
True cinnamon is native to the lush tropical forests of southern Sri Lanka. The gentle coastal hills are especially suited to the growth of cinnamon. Wars have been fought over this spice. In 1505 the Portuguese sailed to that part of the world in search of cinnamon so they could cut out the Arab middlemen. In those days it was gathered from wild trees but when the Dutch succeeded the Portuguese the first plantations were sown and cinnamon has been flourishing ever since.

Sri Lankan cinnamon estate : https://acriltea.com
On my last trip to Sri Lanka I wanted to see the process of cinnamon production for myself so I visited Mirissa Hills, a working cinnamon estate with 360 degree views over Weligama Bay. Thilak the general manager, showed us around the estate which grows both cinnamon and galangal and explained the whole process. On our way to the plantation we passed the little temple to Pathini, The Buddhist God of cinnamon. The air was filled with the scent of cinnamon.
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The cinnamon is still harvested and peeled in the same time honoured way by the skilled Salagama caste. It cannot be mechanised and the process has survived virtually unchanged since ancient times.
The cinnamon peelers go into the fields early in the morning. They choose twigs about 5 feet long and about 1 ½ inches thick -  straighter are easier to peel.  Shoots or leaves are trimmed with a sharp curved machete. 

The skill has been passed down from generation to generation over the centuries. The peelers sit cross legged on hessian sacks on the floor in the peeling shed with their bundle of cinnamon sticks by their side. They need just three tools, a curved peeler, a brass rod and a small sharp knife called a kokaththa.
First the outer dark leathery layer is shaved off; this is returned to the cinnamon fields for compost.
When the peelers have several layers of precious inner bark they carefully layer them inside each other, over lapping to create a four foot quill.
Image: https://acriltea.com

These are carefully laid on strings of coconut coir hanging beneath the tin roof. It takes eight days, away from sunlight for them to curl and dry. They will then be rolled tightly, and allowed to dry for a further ten days. The cinnamon ‘quills’ are then tied into large bundles to sell in the market where they will be precisely cut into the cinnamon sticks we know.
Real cinnamon is known to be a natural ‘cholesterol buster’, unlike it’s inferior and cheaper relation cassia, which is often passed off as cinnamon.
How to know the difference….true cinnamon comes from the thin pliable bark of the Cinnamomum Verum trees. This cinnamon is softer, flakier and paler than cassia which too has it’s place but the flavour is more acrid than sweet, gentle and aromatic. This is the Sri Lankan cinnamon, which I use at Ballymaloe Cookery School,  perfumes for both sweet and savoury dishes.
Hard quills or ‘bark like’ pieces are more likely to be cassia so save those for vegetarian curries if you don’t have true cinnamon. Always try to buy cinnamon whole and grind it yourself, ready ground cinnamon is regularly cut with the less expensive cassia. So it’s darker in colour and has a more aggressive flavour. I’ve had many questions about Sri Lankan food, is it similar to Indian food, hotter, spicier…? In fact it is a wonderful melange of Indian, Indonesian and Dutch flavours reflecting the countries history as a spice producer and trading post over several centuries.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Sweet as Honey

Today, May 20th, is World Bee Day, so a whole post this week on honey, nature’s most delicious, interesting and bio diverse sweetener.
Honey has long been prized for its medicinal properties, now backed up by modern medicine and a growing body of scientific research. I’m a big honey aficionado...

Ancient Ireland was known as the Land of Milk and Honey and coincidently the name Ballymaloe means the Townland of Sweet Honey. The anglicized version of the Irish Baile Meal Luadh – meal means honey and luadh means soft or sweet. These names entered into the language over 2,000 years ago and would always have reflected a particular attribute of that place. So Ballymaloe must have been well known for the quality of the honey from surrounding the area.

Here at Ballymaloe Cookery School we have some hives in the pear and apple orchard looked after by our local bee keeper... beautiful honey...
Both honey and bees are utterly intriguing, the colour, flavour and aroma of honey reflects the flora from which the bees collect the nectar. Heather honey tastes and smells quite different from mixed flower or apple blossom, ivy, rapeseed…
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Honeys from further afield have their own distinctive taste. Lavender honey captures the aromatic essence of the lavender plant as does chestnut, orange or acacia blossom. Honey from pine forests which I also love, tends to be more resinous and a deeper amber colour.
The New Zealanders did a brilliant marketing job on Manuka honey when they discovered that is was most effective in killing antibiotic resistant infections such as MRSA. But it’s not the only honey with these and many other healing attributes. Raw honey is increasingly being used to treat, difficult to heal, wounds and burns. Other studies have shown its efficacy as a cough soother.
Raw honey is the term used for honey that has not been heat treated to extract the honey from the combs. It still has its full complement of antioxidants, enzymes and antibacterial properties. It looks paler in colour, and sets almost solid in the jar. Here in Ireland we have an astonishingly wide range of honeys. Check out the local bee keeper/s in your parish. I seem to favour honey from small local producers. Talk to the beekeeper, hear the story, each honey will taste different and contain the antibodies and enzymes of the area, which help to counteract eczema and hay fever. Look out for city bee keepers too. The Dublin Honey Project is intriguing as is Belfast Bees;  there are similar projects in London, Paris, New York, Sydney …
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How about keeping bees yourself? It’s really thrilling to have your own honey. It’ll be slightly different every year depending on what the bees are feeding on and the prevailing weather. If the idea of doing the bee keeping yourself doesn’t appeal, contact your local bee keeper, they are often delighted to have few more hives. Particularly in an organic garden or on a rooftop in an urban or rural area where there are little or no pesticides.... Scientists are now convinced that neonicotinoids have been damaging vital bee colonies and have a dramatic impact on eco systems that support food production and wildlife.
The EU banned the use of neonicotinoids in 2018 after a major report from EFSA concluded that the widespread use of these chemicals is in part responsible for the plummeting number of pollinators, vital for global food production – they pollinate ¾ of all crops. Finally,  governments appear to be listening to their citizens concerns, so hopefully the bee numbers will begin to recover. Nature given half a chance has an amazing ability to heal and regenerate.
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Image: The Conscious Kitchen
Honey is not only brilliant lathered on toast, I regularly add a spoonful to savoury dishes, dressings and salads to balance acidity and add a sweet- sour element. Chefs are caramelizing honey to add a bitter note to some desserts... Have several types in your pantry, so you can experiment with different characteristics. We love to have a whole honeycomb for our guests at breakfast and if you’re crafty you can make a candle from the left over wax....