Grapes of wrath

Sri Lanka’s fragrant cuisine is a delight, but beware its exceedingly fruity wine

Fortaleza hotel and restaurant, Galle, Sri Lanka
Fortaleza hotel and restaurant, Galle, Sri Lanka

As a migratory bird, the Gannet is not averse to a spot of globetrotting, but the odd pang of nostalgia does occasionally strike, usually over dinner. Not homesickness exactly – more a craving for a glass of red.

Helga’s Folly, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Helga’s Folly, Kandy, Sri Lanka | Image: David Dennis

When Keats talked of “a beaker full of the warm south”, he did not, I think, have anywhere quite as warm or southerly as Sri Lanka in mind. Cold Lion beer and cocktails made with local hooch arrack – a fierce distillate of coconut toddy – are all very well on the beach or by the pool, but when the sun has set and the table is laid, nothing but fermented grapes will do.

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I once stayed at the fabulous and eccentric Helga’s Folly, perched above Kandy, where monkeys cavort on balconies and arrack cocktails are served at sunset to the strains of classical music. I had ordered curry with the hard-to-find speciality of pittu – rice flour and coconut, steamed in a cylindrical mould – and my dinner cried out for a glass or two. The waiter suggested the local wine. Surprised, I asked what was on offer. “White or red,” he replied, and proposed the white. I tried it, and nearly spat it out. Is this even made from grapes? “No, sir,” he replied. “Pineapples.” And what about the red? “They dye it, sir.” Luckily, Helga’s Folly keeps a decent cellar of more orthodox wines and I ordered a pricey (mercifully pineapple-free) Côtes du Rhône.

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Much has changed on the island in the last few years and now is the perfect time to visit. The long and bloody civil war is over, so the Jaffna peninsula and the east-coast towns of Trincomalee and Batticaloa are no longer off limits, but – despite the new highway and the planned airport at Hambantota – the south coast has yet to lose its charm. The seaside town of Galle, with its Dutch fort and colonial architecture, is the island’s best place for food – try Fortaleza, once a spice warehouse, now a lovely three-room hotel. Its coral-walled courtyard restaurant dishes up table‑top barbecues, fish from local boats, salads from the southern uplands and much else, to a lively, appreciative bunch of visitors, expats and weekenders from Colombo.

Do not neglect Sri Lanka’s native cuisine, either – it is a delight, from the “lunch packets” of rice and curry sold on the street, to the splendid breakfasts of string hoppers (little tangles of noodles, preferably made with local red rice), pol sambol (grated fresh coconut stained red with chilli, pungent with red onion and dried Maldive fish), and maybe bittera hodi (an egg curry made with coconut milk). And never pass up an invitation to eat in a Sri Lankan home, where the best of local food can be found. It might be wise, however, to bring a bottle.

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