The cold war maybe over, but the Ice sculpture battle over who is the world’s best continues in, of all places, tropical Negombo, where the art of carving shapes, out of blocks of ice, is a Culinary Olympic sport. Unlike ice cool Alaska this a challenging activity in the Golden Mile beach stretch of eternal sun worshipping, where the temperature can melt your masterpieces faster than you can carve them, even with a chainsaw. Well, unless you are Jetwing Blue ice artist, Bhathiya Perera, a culinary gold medalist and specialty chef, with over 22 years of carving sculptures, in extreme conditions, under his belt. Engcobo’s cool man of ice, as he is called, started life in Dubai in the Metropolitan Hotel cold room, where he tells me his passion for making things with ice started by accident, when he was literally sent to the cold room to help the ice artist.
He is amazingly humble about his numerous Gold Medals and sparkles of admiration fill his eyes as he talks about other ice artists in Russia where they create entire towns of ice for yearly competitions. The origin of ice carving goes back centuries to ice lanterns from the 1600s, which were created to light up the dark winter nights in the Chinese province of Heilongjiang, on the Russian border. Of course the Igloo was the first ice home and this has inspired 20th century ice tourism and even a hotel entirely made from ice in Sweden, where the bar is quite literally ice cool, something Jetwing Hotels have yet to do!
There are two ways to make ice sculptures: You can either carve a block of ice or make a mold in the shape of the sculpture. Blocks of ice in colder climes are obtained from frozen rivers and lakes but typically water that freezes slowly makes clear ice and is preferred by artists for creating truly spectacular ice sculptures. In Sri Lanka, artificial blocks of ice are made in the ice factory for fishermen and are not clear, like other countries, and even keeping them in a cold room, doesn’t allow for the range of work that natural ice can achieve. The cold room at Jetwing Blue also stores wonderful home made ice cream and no doubt some bubbly is always kept on ice for his next Gold Medal win.
Ice festivals are typically seen in places that get very cold like Iceland or Japan, where they create life size ice castles and pagodas. In Sri Lanka there are to my surprise ice sculpture competitions every two years at the Colombo BMICH, known as the Chef Gruld, and it is between the 100 top hotels in Sri Lanka. The competition is fierce and winning not easy, well, unless you can knock out a peacock in full plumage in high definition in less than an hour and a half, which is how Bhathiya won yet another gold medal.
In Negombo you can dive into the iconic Jetwing Blue azure pool during a special event, overlooked by an ice elephant, or a James Bond style figure, depending on the mood of the cool room chain gang, as they like to call their team of ice artists, who rather like life size figurine work, contemporary Pamela Anderson in Bay Watch ice cool style, rather than giant ice frogs and elephants, which it seems anyone can do.
I learn “In 1740, the first monumental scale ice palace was commissioned by the Empress Anna in Russia and people still talk about ice cannons that fired ice cannon balls, and an ice elephant linked to a canal through pipes that sprayed water out of its trunk to keep the royal guests cool.”
The Jetwing team look like something out of Ghost Busters with chainsaws, handsaws, hairdryers, irons and chisels to carve the ice letters by the pool in the heat of the midday sun. Watching oversized ice cube blocks being turned into beautiful sculptures is all part of Sri Lanka’s fabulous culinary arts and goes hand in hand with pastry artistry, fruit and vegetable carving. This connection goes back to the Middle Ages, when extravagant banquets featured sculptures made from edible ingredients like pastry dough, sugar and ice. Once they carved the letters and elephant they were put back in the cold room to be brought out on a iron bar trolly, and like ghosts in the night, carried across the pool lit only by the moonlight. Once placed they were spot lit with ever changing coloured lights adding to the drama of these dripping masterpieces.
Although Hong Kong produces the best ice carvers with their obsessive level of detail in their sculptures, Bhathiya Perera says proudly that Sri Lanka is the best in the world for the pastry art. “I have won several Olympic gold medals for making in one case a three dimensional shop and also the highly prized Asian Gold Medal for my pastry art of an antique bungalow created in Singapore. When I asked him his favorite subject matter he responded that he liked to do ladies figures and big creations like Rodin in ice, but, unlike the master of classical Italian art, everyone can afford his spectacular masterpiece, which is quite something from a man that has won fourteen gold medals. But for him this is just the start as he loves creating amazing pieces for that unforgettable wedding, corporate get together that will leave its cool mark on any important event. For Earth Day he decided as the climate is changing yearly, warming up in Sri Lanka to abandon ice and use what the hotel is surrounded by sand. The carving of hands holding a globe makes one think of a time bomb ticking and lets hope we don’t have to hit another ice age before everyone realizes we are all responsible for climate change.