Thursday, June 14, 2007

Palm Wine

The news that the veteran Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe hás just won the Man Booker International Prize has reminded me of another Nigerian writer, Amos Tutuola, who wrote the visionary novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his dead Palm Tapster in the Deads` Town. Another of his works was the inspiration of the classic David Byrne and Brian Eno album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

I will move on to palm wine in a moment but first will talk about chopsticks …

I`ve just got back from the local shop and sat a while with the owner 81 year-old Mr. Virgilio and his 40 year-old son Inacio. I spent a year in Shanghai in the 1980s and Inacio spent a week in Taiwan two years ago – we got to talking about chopsticks and Chinese cuisine. Turns out that Inacio brought back a lot of chopsticks from Taiwan and it was a pleasure to pick them up again with a plate of salted cajamanga! And he gave me three pairs – so I will now try to teach Hamilton and Kiste how to use them!

This again reminded me of the two years I later spent in Darfur where the traditional drinks are a beer made from millet, sorghum or sesame and a distilled spirit made from dates or oranges. The beer was considered by aid agencies to be an important contribution to local nutrition so the introduction of Sharia law in 1985, in the midst of a famine, was not considered helpful.

And so back to palm wine.

Elaeis guineensis, the oil palm, is grown throughout tropical Africa and Asia, both at artesanal and plantation levels of production, for the two types of oil that can be extracted from its fruits/nuts.

However, its sap can also be used to produce palm wine – a natural, organic alcoholic drink. An oil palm can be used for either palm nuts or palm wine – not both.

Here, to get palm wine, the palm wine tapper climbs to the top of the palm, makes sure it is clean of both male and female flowers, makes an incision in the trunk, inserts a spigot and ties a 5 litre container to the tree into which the sap flows. Two-three litres a day. In other central African countries, I have been told, they cut down the whole tree and take the wine out of the base over a series of days – bit of a waste!

The sap is non-alcoholic – at first! But the moment it hits the air, it starts fermenting. After 2-3 hours it is alcoholic but still sweet. After eight hours it is becoming sour, after two days it is vinegar (one of its uses!).

There is something curious about its qualities. Firstly, it is too filling to get you real drunk. Secondly, it seems to have some narcotic effect like cannabis (and hence the strange almost hallucinatory character of Tutuola´s novel – but I´ve yet to see scientific research on this) that gets you talkative and relaxed but not falling over, thirdly if you drink too much, it will counteract your stomach-acids, continue fermenting and give you diarrhoea.

We use our own oil palms for oil, not palm wine. The “contractural” details with palm wine tappers are far too complicated!

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