Finding serendipity in Sri Lanka, where the food is good and the animals are happy
By Carolyn O'Donnell
Travel Mail - London
Sri Lanka’s happiest farm animals live at a small hotel in tea-velveted central hill country where they eat pineapple and their main responsibility is to produce compost.
Their hard work is used to help grow coffee, fruit and organic vegetables in the 30-acre grounds of Jetwing Warwick Gardens, where guests are received like visitors at a country estate.
However this 19th-century former Scottish tea planter’s house is one where you can pick and produce your own beverage.
Sri Lanka: Where plants luxuriate in the 'eternal spring' of the hill country, and mist hangs in the valley
After extensive refurbishment it offers just five rooms, with walks to mesmerise birdwatchers, gardeners or anyone on the hunt for a snack. And if guests want to wander into the kitchen and cook something they’ve found, then they can do that too.
While there I explored the exquisite landscaping where plants luxuriate in the ‘eternal spring’ of the hill country, admired the mist hanging in the valley at lawn’s end and attempted to make parathas.
Parathas are a flat, pan-fried bread of Indian origin, though the Sri Lankan variety contain egg for extra crispness.
Stretching the dough looked a simple wrist-flicking matter when the chef did it, but lumpy is probably the best word to describe my efforts after clumping rather than expanding took place. But when dipped into chicken simmered with coriander, dill and chilli, shape no longer seemed important.
Most visitors to the ‘island of Serendib’ will sample the national dish of rice and curry, but many will remain unaware of the regional variations and diversity of Sri Lankan cooking as restaurant culture languished on the back burner during the nation’s civil war.
While a peacetime boom grips the capital Colombo, where polo-playing financiers discuss real estate deals at parties, much of the best eating is still to be done at the country’s better hotels.
Iconic citadel: Near the village of Sigiriya the vast Lion Rock, left, is a must-see monument on any traveller's itinerary. Not quite as large, but at 30m high just as impressive, one of the many statues of Buddha, right
With a dozen properties in different locations, Jetwing offers an unusually eclectic array of accommodation and while the focus might range from ayurveda to wildlife-friendly wetlands, they are united by a commitment to fine dining.
Priyantha Weerasingha, regional executive chef of four Jetwing hotels, is passionate about embracing new culinary trends while preserving traditional Sri Lankan cuisine. In an attempt to rescue recipes from oblivion, he has even visited villages to research what locals were eating 50 to 100 years ago.
He not only discovered dishes such as dum massa – pork cooked over charcoal with spices for smoky flavour – but some holistic wisdom. ‘The village people then were very healthy,’ he says. ‘Staple ingredients included honey, lime and tamarind, and we’ve added these things to hotel menus here.’
By ‘here’ Chef Priyantha means his ‘casually elegant’ hotels in the popular seaside town of Negombo, a convenient stop for tourists being only 10km from the international airport. Its wide beaches are a draw, as are its crabs, prawns and yellowfin tuna.
In another splendid merging of the attractions of food and ocean, chef Priyantha arranged a cooking demonstration for me on an outdoor terrace at Jetwing Sea – re-opened in January after a makeover - where waves caressed the sand a moment away from the sizzling pan.
Fruits of her labours: Carolyn gets to grips with the paratha, left, and al fresco dining, right, provided the chance to try some very tasty traditional and modern dishes
In the alfresco tradition of Keith Floyd – though without the wine - he produced Negombo prawns tempered Sri Lankan style, which is the signature dish of the nearby sibling hotel Jetwing Beach.
Its Sands restaurant is recognized as one of the area’s best and it offers three regional cuisines at Go Sri Lanka, its weekly showcase of Tamil (north), Muslim (east), and Sinhalese (west) Sri Lankan cuisine.
‘We represent three religions (Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism) and three kinds of food,’ Chef Priyantha commented, as he mixed the prawns with curry powder, chilli, turmeric and salt.
Hotel guests thinking of lunch ambled past, watching with interest as onions, garlic and ginger were added to the mix before the prawns were tossed in. With the addition of fenugreek, cinnamon, curry leaves and the coconut milk around which many Sri Lankan curries are based, the dish was ready for final seasoning in about 12 minutes.
That evening he walked me through Go Sri Lanka, pointing out some highlights: chef-sliced mackerel and tuna salad, Jaffna fish curry, sizzling roti (folded pancakes), Muslim khalia beef liver curry, black chicken curry and Tamil cooking flavoured with mango, coriander and tamarind.
Then there were sambals, pickles and chutneys, plus hoppers – bowl-shaped coconut milk pancakes – produced to order with various fillings.
My sweet tooth divined the desserts, where I tasted wattalappam, a coconut milk pudding a bit like crème caramel, and bibikkan, a cake often eaten before marriage to provide energy for those expected to be busy, kama sutra-style, afterwards. Apparently it was very popular among kings with many wives.
A spot of impromptu bathing: While wandering down the dusty main street in Sigiriya Carolyn was invited to scrub a contented elephant lying in a stream
Spotting kingfishers and bee-eaters is popular among guests at Jetwing Vil Uyana in Sri Lanka’s ‘cultural triangle’, where luxury meets eco-friendly initiative. Its 27 ‘dwellings’ are built around two man-made lakes that have nurtured a busy haven for native creatures. And the accompanying irrigation system helps grow organic vegetables used in what is undoubtedly the finest kitchen for many miles.
With a naturalist at hand to advise on peacocks and elephants, the hotel is impressive enough itself – each dwelling is built in forest, water, paddy or marshland with vaulted ceilings and acres of wood-panelled floors. But Sigiriya (Lion Rock), a must-see monument on any itinerary, is just 5km away.
The briefest but most extraordinary of the island’s medieval capitals is a stunning archaeological site, with a citadel atop an outcrop 200m above the plain. Pleasure gardens sprawl at its base and the nation’s most iconic frescoes, the 5th-century Sigiriya Damsels, can be seen halfway up.
The village of Sigiriya has a sleepy charm too. While wandering down the dusty main street I was invited to scrub a contented elephant lying in a stream.
I was very contented too after a massage at Vil Uyana’s designer-zen spa, situated on one of the lakes. My open-air treatment room was lapped by wavelets, in which a bath serenely nestled.
Apart from food, Jetwing is rather keen on spas. Its distinctive Ayurveda Pavilions is an award-winning 12-villa Negombo resort, where guests can follow a personalized ayurveda regime and be steamed and bathed to holistic perfection.
Which is probably the only thing that could be better than being a pineapple-sated farm animal.