By Logan Cooper
Three bottles—looking more like scientific accessories than traditional drinking vessels—sit on the table in front of us. We’re in a small space filled with a kinetic and convivial crowd, much of it dancing. The young guy to my right squints through the haze of incense at the beaker-like glass in his hand, then leans in close to be heard over the enthusiastic drumming of the tireless two-man band.
“This one burns a little,” he says. “I’m thinking I like the sweetest one best.”
I’m not sure I agree with him. So for the dozenth time that evening, I reach out for one of the glasses on our table—beginning, again, to make my way through all of the options in front of us. One can never be too thorough when pursuing serious research.
My wife, Rachel, and I are at the very top of the small Ethiopian hill town of Lalibela, drinking a home-brewed wine called tej that’s concocted from local honey and gesho, the bitter leaves of the buckthorn tree. We’ve been hunting the best examples of the somewhat elusive beverage since we arrived three weeks ago. To find this particular place, we relied on the poorly translated recommendation of an acquaintance. The directions were sketchy at best: “look for an alley behind the police station” and “listen for music.” It didn’t help that the place was called “Torpido”—not exactly confidence inducing.
Before this trip, we had imagined Ethiopia as arid, dust strewn and sepia toned. In reality, the country is stunningly lush, blanketed with wheat, barley, chickpeas, lentils, nigella, canola, teff, corn, sorghum, millet, flax, sesame, peanuts, safflower, sunflowers, taro and yams. They also grow very small red onions and very big beets.
With the exception of a short occupation by the Italians, Ethiopia was never part of the colonial shell game like the rest of Africa. Thus, its sense of self and its national pride shine like nowhere else on the continent. Ethiopians love popcorn with their coffee and have preternaturally clear complexions. They weave beautiful fabrics, smile a lot and instead of saying “yes” or nodding, they show affirmation with a quick, sharp inhale—like a gasp of surprise. It can be disconcerting and difficult to get used to.
Most of the country is dominated by an old and curious branch of Orthodox Christianity. They have their own patriarch, and large swaths of the population don’t eat meat on Wednesdays or Fridays. They claim to have the original Ark of the Covenant.
Time is different there, too. Since they never adopted the Julian or Gregorian calendars, there are still 13 months in a year, which is currently 2004. Even more confusing: their clocks are set to the equatorial sun, which means noon in European time is 6 o’clock Ethiopian time, because it’s six hours after sunrise. If you want to meet someone at 3 o’clock in the afternoon European time, you ask to meet at 9 o’clock. This does not help with scheduling.
When we reached Lalibela, my wife and I had been on the road for six months of a fourteen-month trek around the world to hunt down unusual regional foods. Tej was high on our list. We first sampled it in Addis Ababa, and continued trying versions while working our way north through Bahir Dar and Gondar. But it was in the remote village of Lalibela where we discovered how subtle and well structured the seemingly straightforward elixir could be.
When we arrived, our minibus driver stopped and dumped our luggage on the side of the dirt road. There was no sign, or even a clear route into town. Luckily, we happened upon a pair of ten-year-old boys who knew of a mile-long winding path (through an only slightly wet ravine) that ended near our accommodations: a cinder-block construction standing as much from inertia as from any skill that went into it. It wasn’t totally without charm—sporting a few picturesque laundry lines and a cute thatched rondel off to the side that served up coffee and the occasional light meal. Our room featured chipped yellow paint, a few spots of mold and institutional carpet conveniently worn along the most popular walking paths.
And then my wife got fleas. You do not want your wife to get fleas.
There was a lot of showering, marital anguish and laundering. In the meantime, we continued (somewhat less comfortably) to explore.
Lalibela is best known for its gorgeous rock-hewn churches—really the only reason tourists show up at all. Picture a flat expanse of rock, then imagine digging straight down, chiseling away everything that isn’t part of your church. The end result is pretty spectacular. The oldest ones date to the 12th century and there is nothing like them anywhere else in the world. Almost everyone arrives as part of a package tour, sees the churches and gets back on the bus in less than 24 hours. It’s sensible since the town only recently got electricity, has no paved roads and…well…the whole flea thing. But it’s really a shame.
By sticking around for a while, I learned to make injera, the fermented teff-based bread that’s a staple of the region. We were invited to dinner with a local family who had slaughtered one of their prized chickens for the most delicious doro wat (a spicy, buttery stew) I’ve ever had. We learned the proper way to toast coffee and how to pound it by hand with a metal mortar and pestle.
The extra time was also indispensable to our tej education. We watched bees flitting across the tiny purple lentil flowers before heading back to their carefully tended brood boxes. Seeing the hives in the countryside isn’t unusual, since Ethiopia is the largest honey producer in Africa. It’s been estimated that up to 70 percent of the final product goes into brewing tej.
I met an old lady who showed me how she picked and dried the gesho leaves. She explained that the buckthorn acts a lot like hops in the fermentation; you can tweak the amount to dramatically alter the flavor. She also told me that she adds not just leaves, but some of the stems to her particularly potent varieties.
Tej comes in three varying strengths. Laslasa is the sweetest, with the lowest alcohol percentage; makakalanya is the most common and popular style. The really hard stuff—the kind the old lady adds buckthorn twigs to—is called derek. It’s a touch yeasty—almost as bitter as it is sweet—and has a nice dry finish. At the tasting at Torpido, it was the derek that was my favorite.
Several different varieties of tej are available here in the States. I’d certainly recommend giving them a try. Like many things, though, when a product goes from small batches made from locally gathered ingredients to an industrial process with all the implied compromises, something gets lost along the way.
Food is place, so tej will always be this to us: frenetic shoulder dancing, cowhide stools, climbing over piles of dimly lit rubble, mud walls, laughing too loudly to make up for language differences and grinning old ladies who are sweeter than anything in those bottles.
And the occasional flea.