Galle Fort — ten generations in one street

Juliet Coombe, courtesy of the Daily News

The British Colonial red letterbox sets the scene for the gargantuan colonial façade of The Heritage Café that straddles both Pedlar and Lighthouse Street replete with imposing columns, original courtyard, which considers the volatile horizon in pensive calm, solid and stoic, concealing the boundless ever changing energy and innervations of different generations and the buildings variable uses over the centuries.

MANHALManhal the owner of The Heritage Café explains with immense pride over a fish platter fit for a king that this is the only ancient fortress of its kind and that it is very much a living city, where you see fort children with satchels heading out to school early morning, street peddlers plying their trade daily, and the army running past keeping up a rigorous routine reinforcing why they are one of the best in the world. This is in dynamic contrast to other forts around Asia, which are in most part merely empty museums, with none of the historic families or life coexisting within their historic walls. Manhal always with a story to tell about the past and the biggest twinkly smile thinks his family has probably been living in Pedlar Street for around ten generations or more. “It’s difficult to know” explains Manhal, “as my family has been here for so long and since no records from the early years exist and we only have the oral history it is hard to know fully about our lives here in Galle. I am always seeking out new information and feel like an archaeologist some days putting the pieces of a puzzle together, both of this building and my family’s past lives in this ancient citadel.”

Henry Montagu:  On the wall of The Heritage Café courtyard he shows me a birth certificate from 1899, revealing that a boy called Henry Montagu was born in the building on March 24 at 53, Lighthouse Street, Galle Fort, Ceylon. The Montagu’s were a British family that came only a few months ago as tourists to visit the café in search of their family tree. The birth certificate revealed the other side of the family – where one Lady Burrows late Antonito formerly De Vos an old Dutch Family who are still very much part of the Fort, with veteran Ashley De Vos another Burgher who is a top architect well known to the area, but whether she is a direct relation or not is yet to be proven. Manhal’s actual family as opposed to his business has lived for generations at 75, Pedlar Street, where the family who were at one time famous jewellers of the Bombay Taj Mahal made jewellery for the royal family of India. Moving into all types of businesses over the centuries ranging from hospitality and different merchant trades, the family has had a long term love affair with the place and Manhal plans to open the first vegetarian restaurant in fort at 75, Pedlar Street to give his onetime family home a new lease of life, interestingly food with an Indian twist harking back to his historical roots. Manhal says, “When I was small my home at No. 75 was always a lively place before the 26 year civil war, entertaining people from all parts of the world, while bicycle rickshaws wheeled their way past our veranda daily some carrying stately guests and others peddling wares to sell from house to house. Life was simple, as we knew all our neighbours for generations and all backgrounds mixed, playing happily together on the historic rampart walls regardless of religion or differences in status. Those were the days when crime was non-existent and the Fort felt like one big open house.” Manhal’s father loved seafood and I guess this is why he makes such a magnificent platter that feels like it has that homely as well as professional regal touch. He says with pride showing me the old brick bread oven in the restaurants courtyard, “I really like to make my guests feel at home, with old world service and stories about my Fort that has seen everything from the civil war to the tsunami and now hopefully, united peace. I love the Fort and worry about my children who will probably end up working and living in Canada, not recognizing the fact that this is a place full of golden opportunities.” His eyes sadden as he says, “The new generation likes the fast lifestyle, the big bucks and new technology that is driving the world at hurtling pace to all corners of the planet, breaking valuable roots from which they grew. The charm of the Fort is that it’s a time locked trinket where time is not as important as the experience you have with the people, the food and the old historic buildings. Here you can switch off your phones, throw away your computers and walk for hours on the ramparts always seeing something new and special.”

Great night out: As we tuck into The Heritage Café avocado and cascading lagoon prawn cocktail, with the green avocado off set with the grated orange carrot, tomato and swirl of red onion mix that makes this a romantic dinner appetizer for a great night out. The dish is so beautiful that it is almost too good to eat and is one that is enjoyed in the evenings from 6.30pm onwards with families, because children simply love the old house and child friendly setting created by Manhal’s wife Huzaifah, who once had a Montessori school in the Fort and knows how important it is for a mother to enjoy her food while the little ones play safely.

HERITAGE CAFEThe Heritage Café children’s corner has puzzles, fun books to read, games and pictures to colour in, all of which makes it a day out as much as a great family meal. In the later part of the evening, couples come and fine dine here, travellers who love the bamboo lit rooms and lounge area with azure blue cushions and fascinating wooden artifacts combined with fabulous food have made it their home from home. Finishing off with golden pineapple fritters created by Mangala and Chandana, both home grown Galle chefs with golden ideas as you will soon discover while tucking into this naughty but nice dessert soaked in treacle and covered with caramelised crunchy nuts with a drizzle of chocolate sauce decorated with fruit leaves. An amazing pudding guaranteed to make you come back for more and even the big kids love it! Combine this with the open courtyard setting, traditional Arabic style couches to lounge on or for the more formal the splendid hundred year old teak tables and chairs that have been in Manhal’s family for generations. You look out onto the old British colonial fireproof brick oven in the courtyard, which is over two hundred years old. A place that was once a bakery that made over a thousand loaves a day, plus buns and sweet cinnamon rolls imbued with the local spice that is so good for you. The building itself is open with a row of arches and columns allowing you to enjoy the rock/coral garden with sweet smelling Araliya and ferns in old copper rice pots that give one a sense of the medieval period and of the Fort’s heyday, when ox carts rattled along the streets, and fishermen sold the latest catch of the day from boxes on the back of their bikes swimming in panniers straight from the sea. If one was a painter the fish platter looks like it has been taken from a Rembrandt still life with its artistic garnishes using red cabbage as the floral design for pieces to set off the plate, which looks like a fish. Mahdi Mahi known locally as Parau is similar to white seer fish, and this is accompanied with a mix of sea and lagoon prawns in their shells, and cuttlefish marinated and cut into scalloped ring with fresh buttered up country vegetables and crispy potato wedges served with homemade barbeque sauce. This is a feast that can be shared with a friend or enjoyed alone in this historic house full of treasures from the past, some parts of the building are more than four hundred years old, which even today has ancient rituals carried out and yet it is its mystic charm that will bewitch you as you enjoy whatever the catch of the day is on the specials chalk board on Pedlar’s Street.

Crossroads of the old trade route: You can hear in this central part of the Fort both the chanting of the mosque with the call to prayers five times a day, mixed in with the music of the Buddhist temple and the twittering of birds and the occasionally cheeky purple leaf monkeys that know where all the best places are to eat in town. Here you are at the crossroads of the old trade route, and the centre of an ancient world in which the spice trade was a highly guarded secret, so valuable were spices like cinnamon. The Heritage Café prides themselves in always using spices according to taste whether it’s in their traditional rice and curry with white prawn curry or with the appetiser the oriental spice hinted seafood and mushroom cake served with stir fried mixed vegetables with balsamic dressing. I discover that when the bakery was initially opened they used the well water to mix the dough, and today this is one of only a handful of historic Dutch wells left in the Fort. The entrance between the Barista coffee shop and the restaurant still has a lucky horseshoe over the door reflecting the original stables in the Fort and the belief in the power of magic of which an upside down horse shoe is still considered the bringer of good luck. Above all the antique cupboards are pictures of the old Fort and even a huge image of how devastating the tsunami was to the area in 2004, when modern Galle was wiped out and the old Fort stood solid. Part of the magic of the restaurant is Manhal’s stories. “I often think of myself and Shafeek who owns the kade, grocery shop opposite my house playing marbles and carom. It’s reassuring to see how hard he has worked to build his business and that his children and grandchildren will remain here as they are a vital part of the Fort’s historic future”. Looking around it does not take much to understand why the Fort is Manual’s life and through his life at The Heritage Café you will learn about the real life of this awe inspiring sea fairing port while tucking into a platter of fresh fish straight from the sea. – See more at:

juliet coombe Juliet Coombe

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Filed under British imperialism, cultural transmission, heritage, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, photography, sri lankan society, world affairs

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