Friday, March 30, 2012

Palm Wine

I recently joined the African Book Group, which meets weekly at a local bookshop.  The women are well-read, well-traveled, intelligent and fun.  I am learning so much about African culture and enjoy hearing the different viewpoints as we discuss each book.   This week we read, Travels in the White Man's Grave by Donald Macintosh, and it was reviewed today.  I thought it was overall an interesting collection of stories and enjoyed the antics of the author's adventures through the West African forests.  

In the book, "palm wine" was mentioned several times.  We discovered that this local brew carries substantial cultural significance within Nigeria.  The milky liquid seems to be an essential part of numerous religious and social ceremonies as well.  One of the members stopped by a 'reputable' dealer, trader, salesman on the side of the road and bought some for us to try.  Since it is a traditional drink in Nigeria for all the locals, I wanted to have a small taste.  

Palm Wine comes from one of many varieties of wild date palms (most commonly Tombo or Raffia Palms) which grow in the forests of Nigeria.   To retrieve the wine from the palm tree, a hole is tapped high into the trunk right below the branches in order to release the sap.  A calabash (large gourd) is placed over the opening, covering the point of contact by wrapping it with leaves in an attempt to discourage flies and other suicidal insects - a precautionary measure which is rarely successful.  Every day, the calabash is removed and replaced until the wine flow eventually diminishes.  

The sap is creamy white in color and is typically mixed with water to make the wine.  If kept for a day or two, it begins to bubble and ferment, becoming stronger in flavor and quite intoxicating.  Palm wine is very much an acquired taste and usually taken at room temperature.  The warm flour-y taste and the knowledge that corpses of drowned flies, spiders, beetles and maggots tend to feature prominently in any calabash of palm wine - all combine to make a 'unique' flavor.   Personally, I thought it tasted like old tennis shoes mixed with strong yeast and sour vinegar.  I can honestly say it is the worst thing I have ever tasted!  And the smell......whew!  
This Nigerian 'moonshine' arrived in a water bottle! :)  You can see it bubbling on the surface.  
It also wouldn't stand on its own since the bottom was a bit rounded from the pressure inside.  

When the bottle was opened, it kind-of exploded, which is why it is sitting on the floor!  :)  One of the Nigerian ladies drank a small glass of this one and seemed to enjoy it.  However, when it was her turn to comment on the book, she couldn't remember any of the details! :) 

Like a good and always prepared expat, the lady who bought the palm wine, brought TWO bottles. One was the regular version, complete with extra protein and a bit...uh...questionable.   The second bottle, she took home and boiled for a while, just in case they mixed it with tap water instead of bottled water.  Then this wonderful lady, who has lived ALL over Africa, graciously took the time to protect pamper her friends by straining the palm wine to make sure that we tasted the safer, purer version of the local spirits.   

And this is a friend, (Gail) who liked it about the same that I did.  Three of us used the same glass to try it.  Not a full inch was swallowed from that cup after we all had our fill.  What an experience!  

I brought home some to Charles since I thought he might like to sample this local drink.  He took a swig and shuttered.  He said it was BAD....very, very, VERY bad!   However, I took it into the kitchen to ask Gabriel about it and he knew without me saying a word that it was palm wine. He tasted it and thought it was good.  And THAT is why we don't typically eat the same foods.  I think that I will recognize the smell of palm wine for a very long time!  Ugh...

We had a lively discussion about the book and lots of comments about the wine.  Having this visual (and unpalatable) aid just made the book review a little bit more entertaining for all! 

I think this group of women will be one of the highlights of my time in Nigeria.

1 comment:

Carolee said...

Thanks for sharing all the details of palm wine production. But, as I commented on Facebook -- we should have taking a picture to recreate the look of horror and disgust on your face when you took that sip -- this picture with a smile just doesn't convey what I saw in your face when you tasted the palm wine. I guess this is one Nigerian vice that we don't have to worry about you getting sucked into.