Distilling on Dominca

Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Tue 8 Mar 2011 02:06
Jungle Bay, Dominica, Monday night

We were woken up this morning by torrential rain which is pretty common in Dominica. We've managed to avoid getting caught out in it but it often pours down at night. We walked down our 130 steps to breakfast where we saw Nancy and got her to sort out our travel arrangements to get us back to Portsmouth tomorrow night. Having done that, we climbed back to our cabin and got all Andrea's filming gear ready for a trip out. There's a walking trail which starts at Jungle Bay and goes down to some rocks on the coast so we hoped to get some good shots there.

In fact, the trail was a bit harder work than we anticipated and I was only wearing my Crocs so I slipped around a fair bit. Andrea was distinctly lacking in energy, especially for the last bit of the walk which was down some very steep muddy rocks with a fixed rope to use for safety. I had to give her an energy gel when we got to the bottom and that soon perked her up. The waves were crashing all around our rocky promontory which seemed to be another solidified lava flow, sticking into the ocean. The view in both directions was spectacular with jungle-covered cliffs for miles, surf trying its best to destroy them and the next island of Martinique visible off to the south.

We got some good video although it was hard for Andrea to move around much on the boulders and then it was time to head back to the ranch. We had a quick change then an even quicker lunch to get ourselves ready for the afternoon's activities. It's a bit like an upmarket Butlins here and there's always something going on which the staff do their best to persuade the guests to partake in. I think they want everyone to do loads of stuff so they have a great time and bring all their friends back next time.

Anyway, our afternoon trip was a Cultural Tour so we loaded up into the truck again with a different guide called Carlos and headed up the road to a Bay Oil distillery. The building was just a load of rusty corrugated iron sheets nailed onto rickety wooden struts. Inside there was a large aluminium cylinder with a fire pit beneath and a metal pipe coming out of the top. This went into a coil inside a concrete bath of cold water. The dried bayleaves are put into the cylinder, water is boiled beneath and the steam carries the oil out the top and condenses in the coil. It takes about 10 hours to get all the oil out of one batch so the still works 24/7 until that guy has distilled all his oil. Then the next chap brings his bundles of leaves in and starts all over again. The still is owned by a single guy who rents it out to the others so they can use it when they need to. Each person has a Bay harvest about every two years. They get about 2 litres of oil per batch which is then s
old on to the USA or the British market where it's used in men's fragrances or organic anti-mosquito preparations.

Next door was all the gear for processing Cassava. This is a native plant to Dominica and was eaten by the Carib indians before the Europeans arrived and changed everything. The Cassava root is dug up and then grated by rotating wheels before being pressed to get the liquid out. The liquid is deadly poisonous so it's important to get it right. Then the powder is added to water and boiled in a large vat before being processed again. Like a lot of things, it's funny to think how anybody realised you could eat this stuff. The first guy to try got killed but his mate thinks "hmm.. maybe if I squash it for a while, I'll be OK". They must have been really desperate for starch.

All the machinery was totally practical and looked just like something the Romans would have built. I thought the whole place was fascinating, especially looking out the back and seeing the huge pile of discarded, dry and completely oil-less leaves. Around them were groves of pollarded Bay trees awaiting their turn in the cooker.

We stopped along the road to look at the raw ingredients for the Cassava as well as Arrowroot, another native plant which is boiled down to create a starch like cornflour. From there, we went on to the next village to see a rum still. This was in the woods behind an ordinary looking house - in fact, a very prosperous looking house so I think the rum business is a good one. The young Rasta who showed us around works there full-time. He had a row of 45 gallon drums filled with cane-syrup, molasses and sugar and all fermenting furiously. When the fermentation stops, the contents are added to a metal drum, a fire lit underneath and the same evaporation/cooling process takes place as for the bay oil. They get about 30 litres of spirit per 45 gallons of broth.

The product, known as Moonshine, is sold openly around the island and isn't taxed. Only this one village is allowed to produce it, though, so there's a limit on how merry everyone can get or how many people can get pretty wealthy. Two people from Guyana were on the tour with us and they looked a bit surprised to find out that this was being done with Guyanian sugar. I'm really not sure how the government control who distills what but the fact that they probably don't control it only adds to their popularity, according to our guide. The final product is completely clear and tasteless so they add some herbs to give it a bit of flavour before decanting it into second-hand bottles for sale.

All the way through the afternoon, Carlos and the distillery guy were showing us trees and plants growing wild which were useful or edible. They've got coffee, avocados, nutmeg - it just goes on. Carlos said that many people just set up a tiny area of land in the hills and live comfortably from what they can grow. It's like living in a Sainsburys fruit and vegetable counter but everything is just fresh off the tree. I've never seen anywhere so fertile. It makes New Zealand look harsh. Totally incredible.

From there, we went back to Jungle Bay, had a quick swim in the pool and then went to our cabin to prepare for dinner. We had a date with Chuck and Sherrard, a couple we'd met on our first walk to Sari Sari falls. It was the usual good quality, healthy dinner but it went very fast as we were all busy talking the whole time. Andrea and Sherrard discussed art as they're both professionals at that while Chuck and I discussed business things. He's a consultant and helps firms to sort out their customer loyalty programmes so we had plenty of ideas and experiences in common. Altogether a lovely evening.

I'm in Reception now, writing this and listening to the rain hammering down on the tin roof. Hopefully, it will ease off in time for me to get back to our cabin without getting soaked. We've got to leave tomorrow and head back up to Portsmouth and Saxon Blue but, on the way, we're visiting the carnival in Roseau so it'll be a "big jump up" as Jepson would say.