The coddled egg in the ramekin could be a metaphor for our stay.
Galle Fort has been inscribed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A fortified city built by the Portuguese, it is described as “an urban ensemble which illustrates the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions from the 16 to the 19 centuries”. On the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka, Galle has been visited, colonised, traded with, fought over, and become home to the Portuguese, Dutch and then British. Ibn Batuta has been here, and Lourenço de Almeida, captaining a Portuguese fleet. Lost at sea, the ship’s company heard a “galle”, a cock, crowing, realised that land was near, and anchored. They were legendary travellers, and if they saw fit to settle here, no wonder that I, housebound landlubber, was entranced by Fort Galle.
Never have I seen a township so small, so clean, so pretty and yet so cosmopolitan. All around there’s a buzz of languages; you could be in the foyer of the United Nations. Fort Galle is said to be home to artists, writers, poets and singers; Sinhalese, Moorish, Portuguese, Dutch, British and German. The grid of clean, bright cobbled streets is lined on either side by low Portuguese style buildings, with a pink bougainvillea spilling forth here and a white frangipani perfuming the sunny afternoon there. There’s a big gate to the city, and a network of streets leading to a lighthouse and the ramparts on the sea. Within the streets are dozens of bistros serving pizza, grills, sandwiches, salad, soup, tiramisu and chocolate mousse. The usual suspects. Shops selling coconut shell turtles, tie-and-dye sarongs, beads and precious gems. Antique shops. Art galleries. Churches and museums. And among all these a little boutique hotel, Fortaleza. We’d booked it without recommendations. The website showed a beautiful property, the photography was stylish, and I’m suspicious of pictures on websites. But when we arrived, each detail was right. There was not a note out of place; the linen was fresh, the loo immaculate, even the fresh lilies in the room were exactly like the photograph. Laki Sennanayake’s bronze sculpture presided over the entrance lobby.
The kitchen opens on to a courtyard, which is the restaurant, with tables under white umbrellas — candlelit at night — and in a shaded verandah. The colours of the table linen were changed at every meal: combinations of white with azure or burnt orange, on plain wood tables. Large cubic cement planters growing spinach and basil. Fresh leaves and flowers on the table. A cat called Trevor in my handbag. A chef called Arun Logendran in the kitchen. No wonder non-resident locals frequent the place. Starting with coffee, which is excellent, and through breakfast to lunch and dinner. Fortaleza has a small menu, all European. We ate all our breakfasts there, and dinner once. The moment I tasted the first dish I was glad the menu was short: now I would get a chance to try everything and not leave feeling what if….
At breakfast I ordered coddled eggs. They came in a small ramekin and, accompanied with locally baked whole-wheat toasted bread, were cooked just right — barely. White and gold, they were streaked with the dark green of fresh spinach. Buttery, soft, slithery, it was impressive to see evidence of a cook who had the confidence to not overcook the eggs. The muesli was a huge heap of mixed grains in a white pottery bowl, mixed with bananas and mangoes, with a mound of stiff, thick yoghurt on top, sprinkled with cinnamon. Honey came in a little jug on the side. The eggs-and-bacon-and-mushrooms option was very good — I had them scrambled, and the mushrooms had a delicate sprinkling of parsley. Very fine.
I chatted with Arun the chef. He taught me how to look after my basil (snip off the stems to encourage more lateral growth and to prevent flowering and the plant growing too leggy), and together bemoaned the difficulty of finding good, ripe avocado and kithul, palm treacle. Early the next morning I was alone in the courtyard, having my tea and chatting with Trevor The Cat when I saw a young man in the corner of the courtyard scrubbing, scraping and brushing the same thing again and again. It was a cast iron table barbecue. This was used for what seemed to be the most interesting dish on the dinner menu: fresh seafood and other meat and vegetables grilled at your table. Unfortunately we never got to eat it, because the one time we were in for dinner we were still full of lunch. Arun sweetly insisted that I should have at least a salad; he had been to the market and found avocado. So it arrived: creamy, buttery wedges of avocado, green on the outer edge and pale yellowy-green on the inside, tossed gently with salad leaves and the occasional salty black olive in a mild sweet-and-sour vinaigrette; topped with thin juliennes of crisp, crunchy red carrot. It was a delicious combination of soft and crisp textures; and of the mild, nutty taste of the avocado with the piquancy of the dressing on the fresh leaves. My husband ordered a chicken soup that was extraordinarily good; just the right consistency, it was neither runny nor stodgy with starch. It was creamy in colour and feel, with clean, diced chicken, freshly cracked pepper and a tiny pinch of chopped fresh green herbs. And on the road early the next morning I opened my packed breakfast to find cold quiche with tomato-and-basil and avocado salad. The taste of it lingers.