April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Monday, March 9, 2009

Palm Wine

(Photos uploaded by April; text by Kevin)

There are lots of reasons to chop down a tree. Cut it into lumber. Make Firewood. Clear a field. Because it threatened to drop a branch on the house. Because it drops stinky fruit on our porch.

Recently we encountered a new reason: because it makes a vina de palma, or palm wine.

(April and Ancelmo at a felled palm; he will scoop the wine and fill that small container. It is hard to see the trunk of the tree for all of the fronds around it...but he is working with the trunk.)

On Ash Wednesday (in other words, the day after four days of Carnaval fun had finished), I was pasear-ing around the island to tell folks about a meeting on Saturday. My last stop was at Ancelmo and Paula's house. They had been our first host family on the island and are always glad to see us. This time, Ancelmo was even more amigable (friendly) than normal; for him Wednesday was the day to finish up anything (alcohol) that hadn't been consumed during the previous four days. After chatting for a bit, they asked if I wanted to see the vina.

Well, I wasn't sure what that was, but I agreed to follow them up into a field. They assured me that it was not that far...and sure enough we soon arrived at where they were making vina de palma and I finally understood. After realizing what it was we were after, and enjoying some good vina (not as much as Ancelmo), I agreed to bring April back the next day. These pictures are from that visit.

The palm (not all types of palms work for this; some are used for their fronds to make roofs, this one is used for wine) is cut down and a hole is cut in the side, near the former top of the tree. There are other countries where palm trees are tapped to make wine rather than cut down, but in the island these trees are basically weeds that are allowed to grow for a few years just so they can be cut to make wine.

(The hole in the side of the tree)

The sap continues to climb the tree for about ten days afterward, where it collects enough to empty the hole twice a day. The sap contains natural yeasts that start fermentation immediatly and naturally.

(Ancelmo scooping the vina from the hole)

The other option, besides scooping out all the vina into a container to bring back to the house, is to cut a reed that serves as a straw, and enjoy some vina right there in the midst of the long, dangerous thorns that cover the palm.

(Me following Ancelmo's directions to try some more, try some more)

So how does it taste? If you empty the hole, the next time it will have a very warm initial taste followed by an almost sweet vina. That was how it was the first afternoon I was there. Take a long sip, because while the first taste may be a shock, the rest is better.

But (possibly due to his enjoyment of other beverages earlier that day), they didn't bring the cup to scoop out the hole that first day, this left some of the wine fermenting for another 24 hours. So when we returned with April the next day, the vina had fermented a bit more, and was, as even Ancelmo put it, fuerte (strong).

(My reaction on day two shows the difference in flavor and strength)

To keep the sap flowing, after emptying the hole you need to carve off the upper-most layer of the heart of the palm. Like a Christmas tree, this keeps it from sealing over.

(Anclemo using his machete to scrape off the leading edge of the palm heart)

Then before you leave, the hole is re-covered with the chunks from cutting it, as well as some of the spikey palm fronds, to protect it from ants, bees, animals, dogs, horses, and neighbors.

(Ancelmo putting the frond over the chunks in the hole)

The day April and I visited, we didn't partake much of the vina, since it had developed such a strong flavor. But the first day, I'd been hiking and chatting for about four hours by the time I arrived there, and I was thristy. And Ancelmo kept saying, try some more, try some more. The sun was setting, and I needed to walk fast to get back at least to the sidewalk before it got too dark to go safely over the rocky trails.

But the sky and clouds were turning beautiful colors and we were hanging out in the middle of a field drinking from a recently cut palm tree. I just couldn't feel in a hurry to leave. Using a straw, I have no idea how much I sipped, but it wasn't too strong that day, and I made it home happy and safely.

1 comment:

Stacey said...

Hi! I'm leaving for Panama in April (Tourism and English Consulting), and was wondering if you could give any advice on what to bring. Or, even more helpful would be some things you found you didn't need at all once you got there.

Have enjoyed following your blog!