In 1862 Sir Samuel Baker and his wife set out from Khartoum, capital of Sudan, to explore the reaches of the Blue Nile in eastern Sudan and in Ethiopia. This was a year’s journey, prior to their several year trip along the White Nile, into Uganda, exploring tributaries of the river, some of which I discussed in this entry.
During their travels along the Blue Nile the couple encountered numerous ethnic groups and their exploits make for good, classic colonial-style reading. Although a good deal of his description is of wildlife and hunts, there are a few pages on the food and drink of the region. The following quote is about Tej – Ethiopian honey wine – and also how Sam Baker made honey-wine during their later travels up the White Nile. Further discussion follows the quote.
I paid all my Tokrooris their wages, and I gave them an entertainment after their own taste, by purchasing several enormous bowls of honey wine.
The Abyssinians are celebrated for this drink, which is known as “tetch” [Tej] . It is made of various strengths; that of good quality should contain, in ten parts, two of honey and eight of water; but, for a light wine, one of honey and nine of water is very agreeable.
There is a plant of an intoxicating quality known by the Abyssinians as “jershooa” [gesho; Rhamnus prinoides leaf], the leaves of which are added to the tetch while in a state of fermentation a strong infusion of these leaves will render the tetch exceedingly heady, but without this admixture the honey wine is by no means powerful.
In our subsequent journey in Central Africa, I frequently made the tech by a mixture of honey and water, flavoured with wild thyme and powdered ginger; fermentation was quickly produced by the addition of yeast from the native beer, and the wine, after six or eight days, became excellent, but never very strong, as we could not procure the leaves of the jershooa.
My Arabs and Tokrooris enjoyed themselves amazingly, and until late at night they were playing rababas (guitars) and howling in thorough hapiness…
Various parts of the tree ‘gesho’ (Rhamnus prinoides, or African dogwood) is used in making tej. Different tastes are related to different parts of the tree – depending on whether leaves, small branches, large branches (etc) are used. As well, the longer the leaves-branches are allowed to infuse, the stronger the brew becomes. The best tasting wines are infused with the leaves, cheaper wines use twigs or branches.
Baker mentions that the tej was procured in large bowls and, based on my experience in Eritrean refugee camps in eastern Sudan, the brew would likely have been communally sipped. But served in wealthier establishments, persons would have their own, individual drinking container:
The painting below depicts tej being served in individual containers.
It would be interesting to replicate Baker’s method for making honey-wine, which he used during their exploration of the White Nile – his addition of yeast from local beer to allow for fermentation and his use of herbs to give added flavor. I have read that it is only in Ethiopia and surrounding areas that fermentation is used in making honey-wine and that elsewhere in Africa this is not the case. Perhaps not, based on brews made here in central Africa.
For example, in Burundi there is a brew that is a combination of honey-wine and beer, which is quite good, and I suspect is similar to that made by Baker. Perhaps Baker got the idea of mixing local beer with honey-wine from brews made by local groups in Uganda and it was not his own invention.
To be continued.