Salambo discovering Ethiopia
I recently attended a presentation on Ethiopian honey organised by Slow Food, the global movement to protect local and traditional food, which was originally set up in Italy in the late 1980s. Slow Food has developed an interest for the rare and delicate honey produced in Ethiopia, and wants to promote it internationally. For the last two years, the organisation has brought together Italian organic beekeepers and Ethiopian farmers to share knowledge on honey production techniques.
Because of the connection with Italy, the presentation was held in the stunning grounds of the Italian Embassy, on the outskirts of Addis, at the very foot of the lush Entoto hills. Only 15 minutes from the city’s centre, but protected from its hustle and bustle, the Italian Embassy is reminiscent of a mansion in the Southern Alpes, yet surrounded by eucalyptus trees and sub-tropical plants. Built in the 1930s, it served as the residence of the Italian governor, during the five years Ethiopia came under Italian ruling. Today, many gatherings, presentation and social events in Addis take place inside the various embassies.
Honey is very much part of Ethiopia’s culture. It is used mainly for making Tej, a traditional home-made honey brew, also called honey wine. No ceremony or family reunion can take place without drinking Tej. In some regions, it is also used as a medicine to cure a number of ailments because of its antibiotic properties. Because it is used in large quantities, Ethiopians traditionally buy it by weight at the market place, where until very recently it was still sold in huge leather sacks. They have now been replaced by synthetic bags, as leather has increased in value and is sold to tanneries. Ethiopia is also one of the world’s largest producers of honey, and by far Africa’s biggest.
Honey remains a very regional product. Its taste and texture varies from region to region because of Ethiopia’s extremely diverse flora and fauna. Each area produces a unique type of honey. For instance in Tigray, the most northern region of Ethiopia, the honey has a distinctive white colour and grainy texture; it is made from a local blossom of the sage plant family, known as labiate, which gives it its unusual colour. The white honey of Tigray is the most praised in the country and is considered a delicacy. In the Wenchi crater located about 120 kilometres east of Addis Ababa, the amber-coloured smooth honey is made from the Erica arborea, a variety of the Erica flower found in the crater. Personnally, the Wenchi honey is my favourite. It has a rich texture and delicate taste, and is slightly smokey which makes it unlike any other honey. This is because traditional beekeepers still smoke the beehive to scare the bees away and take the honeycomb.
Slow Food is now helping Ethiopian beekeepers to preserve the uniqueness of their honey, while introducing more modern techniques. They have also introduced a more attractive and standardised packaging in glass jars with a distinctive label (as opposed to the currently used plastic containers), to be able to sell on the international market. The glass jars were donated by an Italian glass company, and have to be transported as accompanied luggage in suitcases whenever someone is flying between Italy and Ethiopia. Manufacturing glass is still limited in Ethiopia, and imported goods are heavily taxed, so people here have to come up with creative answers.