The Flame Tree Estate & Hotel: Foodie Footnotes
With 29 varieties of banana on the island, the ash plant comes from the plantain end of the family, its baby fruits treasured in curries.
Infamous for the 1787 Mutiny of the Bounty where Captain Bligh attempted to kidnap the trees from the Pacific, Breadfruit was introduced to the island by the Dutch in Galle and spread to become an island staple. With its artichoke/chestnut taste and high nutritional values (a single cup has more potassium than 3 bananas), it is much loved as a curry or as chips.
An island native, cardamom is the world's 3rd most expensive spice, surpassed only by vanilla and saffron. We grow our own green cardamom, a labour-intensive plant that can be seen in our spice garden where it is much loved by 5 waring families of monkeys: and wandering porcupine.
Beware of imposters. True cinnamon (cinnamon verum) is a small evergreen tree native to the island. Although other species are also sold as cinnamon, cinnamon verum is the Sun God amidst a court of pretenders. Our (true) cinnamon comes from a neighbour’s plantation and is also grown in our Spice Garden.
Arriving on the island many hundreds of years ago with the Malay Muslims, cloves are deeply knitted into the island’s food and specimens of the trees are scattered across the estate, innocuous evergreens until the buds first appear, so driving our gardeners to down tools and harvest before they spoil.
There are dozens of coconut varieties worldwide, but today’s modern cultivars (engineered to be shorter, more productive, and better behaved) have edged out their forefathers. Over 200 coconuts grow on the estate, many nearing their 100th birthday and we are gradually replanting them to keep alive the old school, a mixed blessing for our coconut plucker who visits every 3 months to shin up to the crown to harvest the fruits.
This cucumber-like vine fruit can grow to enormous slender lengths, hence its village name (serpent gourd); its soft fleshy texture much loved in island foods.
Sri Lanka’s buffalo milk curd is the caviar of the dairy world. The country even boasts its own nationalized curd herd, to augment the many local farmers who make curd in the traditional way, straining it and simmering it gently before it is left to ferment in traditional earthenware pots.
Tasting nothing like curry, curry leaves come from the curry tree (murraya koenigii), and are used to season many dishes, their mild, pungent nutty aroma having a similar effect on a dish as a decent diamond ring might have on an otherwise naked finger.
The luffa aegyptiaca/acutangula is a popular island vegetable with a silky, slightly sweet flavour. It is harvested young, long before it goes onto dry and harden as the fibrous loofah you may have beside your bath.
Otherwise known as Pennywort, Gotu Kola is an herbaceous vegetable herb much used in island dishes; and popular in Ayurvedic medicine. It is a member of the parsley family, and highly regarded as perhaps as one of the most spiritual of all herbs
Made from simmering butter, churned from cream, and removing all impurities and solids. It is often added to dishes to turbo-charge them in the same way in which a proper celebrity might an ordinary cocktail party.
Sri Lankan Ginger has a stronger flavour and aroma than other varieties and is much favoured by chefs (and porcupines). It can be seen growing in our spice garden, with its more ornamental varieties planted around the estate for their gorgeous red, white, and pink flowers.
Otherwise known as brindleberry or Malabar tamarind, this small fruit best resembles a midget pumpkin.
Growing directly off the tree’s trunk, this fruit is to Sri Lanka what the sun is to the day or the moon to the night. Specimens can be found across the estate; none can be felled without a special permit countersigned by protective government agents waving multiple forms. Loved equally by monkeys as by chefs, its naturally sweet, subtle pineapple- or banana-like - flavouring is used to make a variety of dishes, including custards, cakes, crisps, and curries.
Kittel & Jaggery
Sri Lanka's most beloved sweetener comes from the Kittel, or fishtail, palm, from tapping the flower’s sap and boiling it over an open wood fire to a sticky, intensely sweet syrup – like honey, but with a woody, floral, smoky and even savoury scent. Specimens abound on the estate but collecting the sap is a highly skilled task and the tree itself dies after two or three rounds of flowering, making it an increasingly rare and cherished kitchen treasure. Jaggery, is a staple ingredient in Sri Lanka’s sweet and savoury dishes, comes from mixing the sap with sugarcane.
The Arrowhead plant is an Ayurvedic herb, rich in vitamins and minerals, and popular in island salads and curries.
Our variety is West Indian lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus). It is widely planted across the estate and helpful in binding soil to prevent erosion. Multitasker that it is, it is said to also protect against evil, spiritually clean a house, and to bring good luck in love affairs.
Limes & Lemons
Citrus especially limes and lemons, grow well on the estate and can be found dotted around, ready to provide the necessary oomph to our fruit juices, G&Ts and other kitchen delights. Janaka and his team are also busy with allied horticultural experiments - kumquat, and other specialist orange and grapefruit.
There are several hundred mango cultivars worldwide, 7 of which grow on the estate, randomly planted self-seeded trees, many of great size; and all as loved by our monkey families as by our chefs.
The root of manioc or cassava is not native to Sri Lanka, having originated in South America, but it is a staple ingredient today, popular in curries and something that Gunepala’s secret guerrilla gardening has randomly growing on any piece of otherwise unused estate land.
Although not native to the island nutmeg and mace have long been used in its foods. But dues to the paralyzing impact the raw fruit can have on Archie, Bianca, Coca, and other dogs, we do not grow any ourselves.
Few Sri Lankan homes can be found without a patch of pandam growing, its nutty, botanical fragrance (often steeped in coconut milk) used to flavour rice, deserts and other dishes as commonly as salt, pepper or sugar might in Europe.
Native to the island, our pepper comes from our own vine plantation near the main estate road and kitchen garden. We harvest it twice yearly and dry it on the hotel’s spice court under the sun. Although widely popular now, pepper was once a highly prized trade good, referred to as "black gold" and used as a form of commodity money (hence the term "peppercorn rent").
There are two schools of thought about the cooking and serving of poppadams: they should either be deep fried whole and served whole; or cooked in pieces and served thus. Here we follow the Sri Lankan path: the pieces are better than the whole.
With a nuttier flavour and higher nutritional value than white, black, or brown rice, red rice is the island’s go-to choice; and the one favour.
A common herb in Europe, rosemary is one of the hardest western herbs to locate here. It is one of the few crops we grow commercially and can be seen in its specially constructed Greenhouse in the Kitchen Garden. We have tried many various varieties but the only one that has withstood our unique jungle conditions is a sub species begged off the head gardener in Nuwara Eliya’s Botanical Gardens.
Prized as an Ayurvedic medicine, this herbal plant is a popular ingredient in salads and drinks.
This Marie Antoinette of the orchid world is hard to grow, harder still to pollinate (Ananda has to use a fine dry paint brush and pretend to be an insect), and still harder to bring to harvest, But it is much cherished in our kitchens and can be seen growing in our spice garden.