Grin and Beer it

Moving north in Norfolk leads us to Woodforde’s, which began operations in the early 1980s. Their online shop sells a sizeable range of bottled beers and a limited number of mini-keg ales. However, their choice, while narrow, contains some very pleasing choices.

Wherry (3.7%)

The aroma suggests a malty bitter, but this is rather misleading (happily for this taster, who is not a fan of overly malty brews). There is a grain, biscuity feel to the beer and a satisfying hoppy finish. A very tasty, very drinkable and surprisingly complex session beer

Bure Gold (4.3%)

As the name suggests, a pale beer with notably orange characteristics. There is a good hop tang and a fruity sweetness. A good beer for a summer evening, but not to be sniffed at on any other evening, either.

Nelson’s Revenge (4.5%)

Unlike with Wherry, the initial malt aroma does not deceive. Not, I would have to concede, a beer that I enjoyed greatly, but as will be evident by now, malty beers are not my thing. There is little bitterness and a fair deal of malty sweetness. Those who like their beer on the sweet side will doubtless reach a very different conclusion than mine.

Norfolk Nog (4.6%)

This is a beer that is hard, if not impossible, to classify. It’s a dark, though not black, ale, perhaps somewhere between a strong mild and a lighter-strength porter. There is a liquorice hint reminiscent of many dark beers, but also a distinct plumminess. That gives it a gentle sweetness, but there is a constant and pleasing bitterness throughout. A really lovely and unusual ale.

Reasons to be Beerful (Part Three)

Time to zip off to Suffolk and Adnams of Southwold. Adnams is one of Britain’s larger independent breweries and produce a good range of beers, some on a regular basis and others seasonally or occasionally. Their online shop sells mini-kegs. Service can, on occasions, be a little chaotic, but they do at least seem to resolve any problems effectively. For example, they recently sold us some beer that was borderline “best-by date”, but allowed us to have some fresher beer to the value of the original order as well as keeping the original beer, which was in perfectly good condition. Not a bad deal!

Southwold Bitter and Ghost Ship are commonly available, the latter often found in supermarkets. We’ve tried a fair range of their beers, so we should look at those.

Southwold Bitter (3.7%)

A good balance of malt and hops, with a bitter finish. This is a very palatable session beer and while the first taste suggests nothing special, there is a complexity that comes through later. There’s a little toffee and caramel sweetness that is offset by a roast bitterness.

Ghost Ship (4.5%)

A very pale beer with a distinctly citrus tone to it. The slightly fruity sweetness is offset by a sharp and pleasing bitterness. Proof that mass production does not necessarily mean blandness.

Mosaic (4.1%)

Another pale beer and another fruity one, this time with a more tropical fruit feel than citrus. Closer to a session ale than Ghost Ship, but with a similar bitter note.

Ease-up IPA (4.6%)

More fruitiness, again of the tropical variety. This is a very juicy beer, with any sweetness coming from the fruit rather than the malt.

Dry-hopped Lager (4.2%)

Brewed with Pilsner malt and dry-hopped using Australian hops. It’s a reasonably clean-tasting and bitter beer, though I find it a little on the bland side.

Blackshore Stout (4.2%)

A relatively light (in strength) stout, but a very tasty one nonetheless. Nice coffee and dark chocolate tinges and a gentle bitterness in the finish. A really pleasing beer and low enough to treat as a session ale.

Old Ale (4.1%)

A style you rarely see these days. Old ales are not quite stouts, not quite milds and not quite winter warmers. It is, though, in the fashion of a darker ale, with those chocolate and liquorice flavours of a black beer. There is, like the stout, a soft bitterness and a hint of red fruit. Sometimes hard to find, but worth seeking out.

Broadside (4.7%)

Much more malty than any other Adnams beer, with dark fruit flavours. Personally, I find Broadside a little too sweet and malty, but this is simply my preference.

Beer Odyssey: Hook Norton

We’ll start this little jaunt with an old favourite, Hook Norton. This, following the sad demise of Morrell’s and Morland’s, is Oxfordshire’s oldest brewery. Your correspondent lived in Oxford for eleven years, though in those days of the tied-house system, it was rare to see any Hook Norton beer in the city. Ironically, I’ve drunk much more Hook Norton beer since living in Scotland than I ever did in my time in Oxford.

The brewery sells a wide range of bottled beers, including many seasonal and occasional brews. They don’t do mini-kegs, but sell pins of ten and twenty litres. Three are regulars: Hooky Bitter, Hooky Gold and Old Hooky. Now and then something else pops up, like Double Stout.

Hooky Bitter (3.5%)

This is almost the definition of a session beer. It’s an amber beer with a good balance of malt and hop, but a noticeably hoppy finish. There is a hint of fruitiness. Despite its relatively low strength, it has a depth of flavour and character. Most assuredly, a Mallard Tavern favourite.

Hooky Gold (4.1%)

A more recent addition to the regular beers, this is a golden (who’d have known?) ale that uses American hops. This accounts for its distinct fruity aroma and flavour. A lovely beer for the end of a warm summer day.

Old Hooky (4.6%)

This beer came along in 1977 to commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and has been around ever since. It’s darker than the above ales and there’s a hint of the winter warmer about it, with a note of dark fruit, but still a good bitterness. It’s one of those beers that tastes a bit stronger than it really is. You could easily imagine, on blind tasting, that it was above 5%.

Double Stout (4.8%)

This is something of a resurrection ale. Hook Norton brewed it for many years before discontinuing it, but stout has enjoyed – happily – something of a revival. Many of us are grateful for this trend, as breweries now offer us much nicer alternatives to the dull, mass-produced likes of Guinness, Murphy’s and Beamish. The Hook Norton version is, unlike a lot of stouts, hoppy. It makes only the occasional appearance in pins, but is most welcome when it does.

The Joy of Beer

In these times, “travel” involves little more than a walk in the immediate vicinity. Time, then, to turn our attention to other things and what better things are there than beer?

The internet has a lot to answer for. Well, perhaps we should say that certain internet users have a lot to answer for. There are, it seems, masses of people who feel the need to spout hatred and division, lies and disinformation. Some of these people are heads of state.

Happily, the internet has its positive side. One such is that we can now obtain things from all sorts of places, stuff that you probably would only have obtained when on holiday or travelling around. Stuff like beer.

There are plenty of generalist and specialist beer retailers around and a few are very good. However, it tends to be the case that buying directly from breweries if often the best option. This is one good reason for using the direct route, along with the simple fact that it provides important help to independent breweries in difficult times.

It seems only fair, then, to start a small series looking at some of the fine beer that is available. A personal preference is for mini-kegs and mini-pins as opposed to bottles and cans. A five-litre keg, or a five or ten-litre mini-pin allows one to have a good sample of a beer. It’s not exactly what you would get in a pub, but it’s the closest you come.

The plan is to cover some of the beer enjoyed in the (fictional) Mallard Tavern over the course of the last few months. We have sampled brews from Adnam’s, Hook Norton, West Berkshire, Yeovil Ales, Allendale, Tyne Bank, Hadrian and Border, St Andrews and a few others.

Beer, like art, is a personal taste. Different people like different styles and tastes. The “reviews” that will follow are, necessarily, down to personal taste. Just because I, or anyone else, doesn’t particularly like one beer does not mean that the beer is bad. So what you will see are purely personal opinions, which are merely there to inform and, one hopes, provide a little inspiration.

Happy drinking!

Song for a special friend

Standing on the quayside
As a church bell told me nine
Staring at the waters
Of the cold and misty Tyne
I confess to reminiscing
Of one long summer's day
When all my cares and troubles
Seemed to vanish in the haze

The clouds had all lifted
The trees were burnished green
As you and I went strolling
By the banks of Jesmond Dene
That day I made a promise
Although the words remained unsaid
But no day will pass me by
Without them in my head

Walking on a Sunday morning
That would freeze the gates of Hell
Thawed our bones at lunchtime
With the papers in the 'Well
One more blessed hour with you
Before I must set forth
I pray that you sleep sound tonight
My Angel of the North

Thoughts from a Duck Island

It is, of course, possible that there are one or two people living in deep subterranean caves that are oblivious to what is happening in the world just now. Most of us, I suspect, are aware that travel is not really something we can undertake right now, or indeed likely to undertake for some considerable time.

This is a slightly roundabout way of saying, “Don’t expect to see much new content on here.” There may be the odd post – possibly very odd – of a retro nature to keep us going, but for now, Duck Holiday is largely confined to the safety of Duck Island.

We can, though, offer a few thoughts on the present predicament. If nothing else, we have proved beyond reasonable doubt that there is a vast vacuum in political leadership. How many of our leaders wildly underestimated the nature of the problem? Well, just about all of them.

In the UK, we seem to be faring worse than most countries. Again, there was a colossal underestimation of the situation. We are still not really any the wiser as to just how bad things are. What is certain is that we are losing health service workers at a quite alarming rate.

One of the standard lines trotted out is that “this virus does not discriminate.” Yes, it does. It discriminates against the elderly, the poor and the doctors, nurses and other NHS people who have not been supplied with the proper equipment. A woeful lack of funding is behind this. The people who are now shouting “Protect our NHS” the loudest are the very same people who sought to weaken, if not destroy it.

The whole Brexit fiasco was built on xenophobia. The last election had no need for a Brexit Party or the odious Farage; the Conservatives had already adopted his loathsome agenda. Who, after all, boasted of a “hostile environment” for immigrants? Yet look at the figures. The vast majority of NHS workers who have lost their lives come from other countries. These people are now being hailed as heroes.

Our Prime Minister thanks the NHS for saving his life. He even makes a special point of singling out two nurses. Neither of these nurses are British. The NHS desperately depends on people from all around the world. The PM also states that he “cannot thank them enough.” Well, you could. You could ensure that the NHS is returned to being the wonderful organisation it once was. You could also ensure that the people who work for it are fairly rewarded. It would be a start.

Is it too much to hope that we might just emerge from all this with a kinder society? Possibly it is. One of the dismal things we’ve observed is the race to the bottom for the Britain’s Most Unpleasant Businessperson Award. Naturally, Mike Ashley was quickly off the mark, rapidly pursued by Tim Martin. Predictably, Philip Green didn’t take long to get his bid underway and Richard Branson, while joining rather late, has made a spirited effort. And just to ensure that it’s not all men, Karren Brady has made her own charmless contribution.

One day, we hope, there will be light at the end of the tunnel. Let’s just hope it’s not an oncoming train. Meanwhile, the Duck Holiday team can only hope that everyone stays safe and well. It’s going to be a long haul.

Lubomir Moravcik – Football Artist

The managerial reign of Josef Venglos at Celtic is viewed by some as a period best forgotten, a dark age where little good happened and ambition was severely limited. And in some ways, this was the case, although it would be unfair to lay too much of the blame at the door of the good doctor. These were times when the infamous biscuit tin was kept firmly in the cupboard.

So when Celtic paid £200,000 for a 33-year-old Slovakian midfielder, there was much rolling of eyes and a distinct air of ridicule among the denizens of the Scottish football media. An old pal’s act? After all, the selling club was Duisburg, hardly one of the household names of German football. Besides, the player in question, Lubomir Moravcik, had only played five times for them.

Moravcik, though, had a past worth considering. Those with less parochial attitudes recalled a talented Czechoslovakia team being one of the more entertaining sides in a generally grim World Cup in Italy in 1990. There had been almost 200 appearances for one of French football’s elite clubs, St Etienne, and almost a big money move to Marseille before injury intervened.

But this was in the past. Clearly, there was a gifted footballer here, but had the best-before date come and gone? Sceptics – and there were many – folded their arms and stood back to watch. His Celtic debut caused a few eyebrows to head skywards, usually accompanied by approving nods.

Admittedly, the opposition was merely a pretty dismal Dundee side, but Moravcik showed, in a 6-1 thrashing, that while he may not have been a player of the lightning-pace variety, he had a touch that was something of a rare beauty in the macho, leg-biting world of Scottish football.

The Dundee match was merely a prelude. Two weeks later, Moravcik would play in his first Old Firm derby. How, cynics wondered, would this small, slight man cope? Twinkling feet may have defeated Dundee, but Rangers were altogether a different story.

It didn’t even take the full ninety minutes to dispel the grim thoughts of the doubters. Moravcik, the best player on the pitch by the proverbial country mile, scored twice and controlled the game as Rangers were blown away. The 5-1 scoreline was somewhat flattering to the visitors.

Moravcik befuddles Rangers (not for the last time)

And now, it was no longer ‘Moravcik.’ In a bare couple of weeks, the Slovakian was now simply Lubo. And Lubo he would remain for the rest of his Celtic career. The only disappointment, not only for Celtic fans but also those who love wonderful football, was that his time was limited by age. If only he could have arrived a couple of years earlier…

There are very few footballers one can watch and be genuine uncertain as to which foot is the stronger. Lubomir Moravcik was one of them. A corner kick on the right. Let’s try an outswinger. Another corner follows. Okay, let’s make this one an inswinger. And it wasn’t for show. Every piece of skill, every feint, every trick, there was a meaning. And it was a sheer pleasure to watch.

It took until 2001 before Celtic at last got past Rangers and won the league title under Martin O’Neill. In fact, they won the treble and those honours were the first in Moravcik’s long career. It would be harder to think of a more deserving player.

Lubo and Larsson – not a bad combination

Celtic would retain their title the following season, but by now, Moravcik was running out of time and it was to be his last at Celtic. He did, however, get the opportunity to play in the Champions League, another fitting honour.

Lubo Moravcik played 94 league games for Celtic, scoring 29 goals. Overall, he played 129 times, scoring 35 goals. He also won 42 caps for Czechoslovakia and 38 for Slovakia. In the often thud and blunder world of Scottish football, he was a fine and polished diamond.

Pavel Srnicek – Honorary Geordie

When Pavel Srnicek signed for Newcastle United in late 1990 from Banik Ostrava, his home-town club, it’s fair to say that the news was not greeted with rapture. This reaction was no slight on the man himself, merely that he was a largely unknown young goalkeeper joining a poor second division team. It was time, as a Newcastle fan, to be underwhelmed.

His early days at Newcastle did nothing to dispel that feeling. Srnicek appeared nervous, hesitant and error prone. The club was desperate to escape the second division, and it appeared that they would do so. Relegation to the third division was hardly the desired route.

Then, just as in 1982, came Kevin Keegan. Keegan had inspired Newcastle to promotion in 1983-4, but this time, the stakes were even higher. For a long time, it looked a lost cause. Then, a late David Kelly goal against Portsmouth and a heart-racing, nerve-jangling final day, during which a whole host of teams could have been relegated, saw Newcastle win at Leicester and avoid the drop.

Newcastle, with their very own messiah back in place, never looked back. Promotion was achieved the following season and “Keegan’s Cavaliers” were up and running. Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand, Alan Shearer, David Ginola. Wonderful players for wonderful times. We could mention Rob Lee, John Beresford, Barry Venison, Paul Bracewell, Phillipe Albert and many others. And among them, Pavel Srnicek.

During those years, he was capped by his country, winning 49 caps in total. He was the reserve goalkeeper during the Czechs’ fine performance at Euro ’96 in England, when they reached the final and were unlucky to lose to Germany.

Pav in a somewhat garish shirt, which we’ll forgive because of the iconic Blue Star

His time at Newcastle came to an end – at least for now – with the appearance of Kenny Dalglish as manager. Though the team continued to compete at the top end of the table, Dalglish’s somewhat dour image was reflected in their play. The Cavaliers had become Roundheads.

After a short return to Banik Ostrava, Pavel Srnicek moved on to Sheffield Wednesday, where he spent two years. He then joined Brescia, which must have been an intriguing time, as he could count the likes of Pep Guardiola, Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo as team-mates.

His peripatetic existence continued with brief spells at West Ham, Portsmouth and then Beira Mar in Portugal. Remarkably, though, Newcastle hadn’t seen the last of “Pav.” He returned to the club in 2006 as cover. When Shay Given was injured in the final minutes of a 3-1 win over Tottenham at St James’ Park, Srnicek came on for his second Newcastle debut, heartfelt chants of “Pavel is a Geordie!” ringing in his ears. He started the following game at Bolton on Boxing Day, his last-ever appearance for the club. He played for Newcastle 151 times in league games.

Further words are superfluous

After he retired from playing, he set up a goalkeeping school in his home country, where he also coached at Sparta Prague. Sadly, he passed away at the age of just 47 after suffering a heart attack. He may never feature as one of Newcastle’s greatest goalkeepers, but he was surely one of the most popular. His autobiography reflected the mutual affection; it was entitled Pavel is a Geordie.

Joesph Conrad: The Outsider

Imagine, as a native English speaker, having a passable knowledge of French and German. Now, though, try to envisage being asked to write an article in Greek. Improbable? Inconceivable seems a more apposite adjective under the circumstances.

Writers, usually because of exile from their native land, have made such seismic shifts over the years. A recent example is the Czech Milan Kundera, many of whose marvellous works were written in French after several years of living in Paris.

One of the best examples of someone writing in English is Joseph Conrad, born in Ukraine to a Polish family. Growing up under the Tsarist autocracy, he was forced to learn Russian as a youngster, so those languages came well before English.

Conrad served on French merchant ships, so it is highly probable that he spoke some French as well. English, therefore, would have been (at least) a fourth language for him. Despite that, one can certainly count him as one of the finest novelists in the English language. He has left behind a hugely impressive body of work.

Heart of Darkness still causes debate. The great writer Chinua Achebe always deemed it racist. Far be it for someone of considerably less talent like me to argue, but I don’t agree. Yes, the work uses words we wouldn’t dream of using now, but so did Mark Twain, Harper Lee and many other authors of that era. I don’t regard them as racist. Any work is of its time and my view is that Conrad appears a great deal more sympathetic to Africans than the European colonialists about whom he is generally scathing.

Interestingly, I once lent the novel to an African colleague in Eritrea. He, with no prompting from me, said much the same as I have just remarked after he had read the novel and returned it to me.

It has always intrigued me that Conrad met Roger Casement in Africa. Both men had originally formed the opinion that colonialism would be a good thing in terms of the benefits that it would bring to the colonised.. Both soon took a very different view. It’s easy to believe that each exerted a certain influence on the other.

Casement would be knighted for his work in exposing the appalling conditions in the Belgian Congo. That knighthood would end, as did his life, when he became a convert to the cause of Irish liberation, no doubt affected powerfully by what he had seen and experienced of colonial oppression in action.

A personal footnote to this: as someone with a strong Irish background who went to school in England, I was not thrilled when Casement was casually dismissed as an English traitor. I suspect that I gave my history teacher something of a shock one day when, at the age of about fourteen, I put up my hand and said, “Not in Ireland he isn’t!”

Perhaps it’s that sense of being an outsider. Many of Conrad’s works revolve around such characters. In Heart of Darkness, all of the Europeans are, by necessity, outsiders. The sailor/narrator Marlow is an outsider and the mysterious Kurtz even more so.

The outsider is a character beloved of novelists. Virtually anyone who has written a book or even a story will have one lurking somewhere. Albert Camus even went so far as to give pride of place in a title to one. L’Etranger can, in its most simple translation, be interpreted as The Stranger, but a better translation is The Outsider. An outsider is more complex than a mere stranger; he or she has that air of mystery, the thing that sets them apart and very possibly a darker element. The Heart of Darkness does not necessarily refer to the continent of Africa.

For a sense of Conrad’s own sense of alienation and isolation, read one of his short stories, Amy Foster. A shipwrecked sailor from Eastern Europe, Yanko, finds himself alone and stranded in Kent. It is little coincidence that Conrad made his home in that county and it is hard to imagine that Yanko’s attempts to assimilate himself into a close-knit and suspicious community is other than a reflection of Conrad’s own struggles. Amy Foster is the simple, but kind-hearted girl whom Yanko will eventually marry, but even that relationship is marked by incomprehension and misunderstanding.

The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness and Nostromo rank among the greatest novels of all time, the latter widely regarded as his finest work. Any single one of these would be, quite rightly, regarded as a masterpiece by any author writing in the English language. To know that they are the output of a man who, born Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, only acquired British nationality at the age of twenty-nine is something extraordinary.

An Ethiopian Adventure

The offer was an unusual and intriguing one. A month working in Northern Ethiopia was, in itself, an appealing prospect. The fact that the job was with an organisation for women entrepreneurs made it even more fascinating. They certainly didn’t seem to object to offering the post to a man. Indeed, and rather strangely, the head of the association was male.

Not that I would be spending much time dealing with the entrepreneurs themselves. My task was to do some work on the computer systems. The details of this work should not concern us here. There were far too many much more interesting things going on.

The job was based in the town of Mekele, of which more later. The first port of call was Addis Ababa, one of Africa’s largest cities. It is also one of Africa’s highest cities, although a brief stay there was unlikely to incur much danger of suffering from the altitude.

Addis, like many large cities on the continent, is a curious mixture of the old and the new. It is home to a particularly ghastly road, which has about eight lanes and is good only for testing the nerves and reactions of pedestrians. This road borders Meskel Square, a large area in the centre of the city which has a distinctly communist eastern European feel to it. One can easily imagine political rallies and marching troops.

I might be lion

The city houses an extraordinary range of shops, right from tiny wooden shacks to rather plush-looking supermarkets. Likewise, hotels range in variety from scruffy pensions to grand five-star hotels. It is safe to say that Duck Holiday’s budget was somewhat closer to the former.

Addis is not for the squeamish. Beggars are a common sight and many of them are an extremely uncomfortable sight. Be prepared to see people, presumably polio victims, making their way around in ways that seem unimaginable. To watch a legless man “walking” using only his elbows to propel himself is not a sight to leave one feeling at ease.

The train on platform one…

The city has some good facilities. The university is one of the oldest in Africa and has a very good reputation. Likewise, Ethiopian Airlines is one of Africa’s most established and has a proud safety record. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the railways. There is a station in Addis, but it is an extraordinarily ramshackle affair for such a large city. Train journeys are recommended only for the most intrepid travellers.

Addis University

One of the best ways to get around the city is by using on of the many little minibuses that trundle around all over the place. They cost next to nothing and while usually very busy, they get you about and keep you out of the way of scam artists, beggars, shouting children and, even more usefully, the burning sun.

The previous statement may seem rather harsh, but it is a fact of life that you need to have your wits about you. Addis is a huge place and for a few people, westerners are seen as fair game. Of course, it is only a minority of chancers that look to take advantage, but they exist and it’s best to be well aware of that fact.

Mekele, meanwhile, is a far more peaceful and unhurried place. About the worst you are likely to suffer there are the shouts of “Give me money!” from small children. You don’t, of course, and the children don’t really expect you to. Doubtless, they think it worth a try, just on the off chance.

Spending a couple of years in Eritrea proved to be very useful as a prelude to visiting the Tigray region, of which Mekele is the capital. The culture is very similar and there is a common language, Tigrigna. Knowing a few handy phrases in that particular language proved to be handy, both in a practical sense and also earning a little respect from local people.

Mekele is quite a modern-looking city, with lots of new buildings, though it follows the usual pattern of African cities by combining the new with the traditional. There is no better example of when this writer was sitting in his office one afternoon, trying to do some work on the computer, when two goats darted in through the front door, followed closely by a young boy. He looked suitably embarrassed by it all, but it was impossible not to smile.

Church with Ethiopian colours

One of the pleasures in working in far-off places is the opportunity to have a look around and should you visit northern Ethiopia, the chance to go and see some of the astonishing rock churches of the region is not to be missed. These ancient churches are, quite literally, carved from the very rocks. There are a large number of them and they rarely fail to amaze.

A classic rock-hewn church

The Ethiopian Coptic Church is one of the oldest in the world. Its origins were in the Axumite kingdom and Axum is one of the chief towns of the area and a UN Heritage site. This helps to explain why there are so many of the “rock” churches in the Tigray region and a visitor with a bit of time for exploration and an appetite for history will find more than enough to keep him or her busy for a good while. The ancient town of Lalibela, also a World Heritage site, contains no fewer than thirteen rock-hewn churches.

Church interior

The best-known of these churches in Lalibela is the church of St George. It is impossible to visit Ethiopia and not come across him somewhere. Football fans may encounter the team of the same name and beer drinkers will very likely partake of a glass of beer from the St George brewery. His patronage spreads far and wide, taking in as it does Ethiopia, England, Georgia, Lithuania, Portugal, Russia, Greece, Palestine and Catalunya.

It’s that man again

Nearer Mekele, there is a curious, but also curiously moving memorial to the fighters from the liberation struggle which saw the Soviet-backed Mengistu regime finally overthrown. Rather ironically, the centrepiece is a distinctly Soviet-style monument with heroic military figures. It’s a bit of a traipse from the city centre, but easy to locate as the vast monument can be seen from all over the city.

The memorial at Mekele

For birders, Ethiopia offers a huge array of species. In Mekele, a trip to one of the larger hotels makes for a pleasant time, combining some birdwatching with a pot of excellent Ethiopian tea. One can notch up a goodly number of species in a very short time. Colourful birds abound, from bright yellow weavers to iridescent starlings and gaudy bee-eaters. One afternoon, some rather beautiful yellow butterflies appeared, only to see their numbers devastated by a family of equally lovely bee-eaters. Such is nature.

A starling visits

One personal triumph arrived on the final full day in Mekele. After a tramp to the slightly out-of-town Hilltop Hotel for a Sunday pot of tea and a final look for some interesting birds, the walk back into town brought an unexpected moment. During two years in Eritrea, hornbills always seemed to be tantalisingly close. People told me about them, even sent me photos of them, but could I ever spot one? A resounding no.

Then, strolling down the hilly road into the centre of town, something flashed black and white in a tree. This was worthy of investigation. A flapping of wings and a strange, raucous grunt. They they were – two hornbills, which we managed to identify as the rather splendidly-named Von der Decken’s Hornbill.

A kite watches

Food and drink? Having made it through two years as a vegetarian in Eritrea, there was no great difficulty in managing this during a mere month in Ethiopia. The bigger towns are well served by restaurants and the ex-colonial Italian influence can still be seen in the number of pizzerias. As in Eritrea, the local bread (injera) is commonplace and on “fasting” days, when no meat is eaten, this is the staple dish served with salad.

There are several breweries in the country, all of which produce a lager of one form or another. The Bedele brewery makes a fairly gentle Pilsener-style beer, which is 4.3% and very drinkable. There are a few amber ales, rather in the fashion of an IPA, but a personal mission was to find the (somewhat difficult to locate) Hakim Stout, brewed by the Harar Brewery. All attempts in Mekele failed, but we finally managed to unearth it in Addis. As the name suggests, it is a dark beer, though more akin to a brown ale than a stout.

Something else that should be tried is an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. There are versions for tourists, but if you can find one not aimed at the tourist market, all the better. One should be prepared, however, to set aside a good three hours. Firstly, coffee beans are roasted over an open fire. Then the beans are ground using an old-fashioned pestle and mortar. The ground coffee is put into boiling water and finally poured into small cups for each of those present. The ceremony is performed three times.

Sunset in Mekele

The end of the visit to Ethiopia brought a pleasant surprise, in the gift of roasted Ethiopian coffee beans. The aroma was quite wonderful and matched only by the taste of the excellent coffee. Not everybody, of course, will benefit from free coffee, but be assured that coffee is not terribly expensive for those of us visiting from western countries. Oh, and the tea isn’t bad, either…