The best coffee in SA

2015-02-15 09:18

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It is always fun to take Cape Town mountain snobs to Phuthaditjhaba in the Free State, and show them what a place with a real peak in its backyard looks like. The word awesome is overused but in Phutaditjhaba the Maloti mountains are truly awe inspiring. Spectacular sandstone cliffs soar above the malls, pot holes and Shweshwe shops of this Eastern Free State town.

The last census recorded Phutaditjhaba as having 54,661 residents. Amongst them are approximately 300 Ethiopians, one of whom, Demelash (aka David) Wedajo makes the finest cup of coffee in South Africa. Wedajo’s eatery, with the deliciously no nonsense name of Ethiopian Community Restaurant (ECR), is located inside a former pre-school on a suburban side street. With its gingham table cloths, snooker room and satellite broadcasts of Amharic language TV stations, it is a home away from home and community connection point par excellence. On the day of our visit, the television was broadcasting a documentary about Ethiopia’s 1962 victory in the African Cup of Nations.

Wedajo, who has refugee status and has lived in South Africa for nine years, cooks in a green and gold, Springbok emblazoned apron. The great ancient cuisine of Ethiopia is subtly spiced and aromatic rather than searing hot. The core spice blend, Berbere (a fragrant mix of fenugreek, paprika, ginger, allspice and garlic with only a hint of chilli) perfumes the air. Tender Doro Wat chicken stews top Injera (a sourdough-risen flatbrea) soured pancakes. Kitfko (the Ethiopian version of steak tartar) is made with A- grade Topside and dipped into Awazi relish. Since Ethiopians observe numerous religious fasting days, that do not include meat, there are many delicious vegetarian options.

While the majority of his customers are East African in origin, Wedajo says that he also caters for increasing numbers of curious locals, visiting lecturers from the University of the Free State’s nearby QwaQwa campus and mountain climbing tourists. Whoever sits on his seats marvels at the quality of the coffee served. No one knows exactly when Ethiopians first noticed the stimulating effects of the indigenous coffea Arabica bush but the written reports of Arab travellers suggest that they were certainly coffee chewers and drinkers by the 10th century AD. This history is infused into every cup at ECR.

His signature blend of three raw coffee bean varieties are roasted and ground to order because he says “even the best bean loses much of its flavour within 20 minutes of having been ground.” The velvety, mouth-filling, palate-lingering, subtle yet strong coffee served at ECR is considerably better than anything else available anywhere in South Africa - including in the country’s finest Italian restaurants. While most customers have popped in for a quick cup, those with time on their hands order up a frankincense-laden coffee ceremony which brings intimations of antiquity to the hustle and bustle of Phutaditjhaba 2015.

Wedajo savours his coffee and observes that “when I first arrived in South Africa, I lived in Johannesburg but I have been here seven years and I prefer it. My son was born in the shadow of this mountain - he speaks Sesotho better than he speaks Amharic.” His eyes pass from the mountains outside to the restaurant’s TV and on to his apron then he smiles as he says “the Ethiopian national football team, we call them the ‘Walias’ – this is also the name of our indigenous Ibex. Springbok, Walias. Both have horns. Both jump. They look the same. They are brothers. “

The Ethiopian Community Restaurant is situated at 8926 Mohlomi Street, Phuthaditjhaba.

You can call them on 072 0911 613.

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