In sugar-cane land – rum in Saint Lucia

Written by DOUGLAS BLYDE

Cover Sugar LandDouglas Blyde heads to Saint Lucia to seek out rum, the island’s favourite spirit, in homage to Victorian travelling writer, Eden Phillpotts…

‘I sped away over the ocean into a region of tropic sunshine and blue waters, of islands built by volcano or raised by coral insects, there to see the sugar-cane grow and study the people who grow it,’ wrote Eden Phillpotts in his 1890 travelogue, In Sugar-Cane Land. I discovered the Victorian’s intense words in a dark, dusty bookshop in Putney one wintry morning. A century-and-a-quarter after it was published, the prose of the insurance officer turned author, dramatist, poet, and best friend of Agatha Christie, inspired me to set course for the West Indies. However, folded tight into Economy of a Boeing 777, with reading light dimly illuminating my increasingly dog-eared copy of Phillpotts’ tome, my journey to Saint Lucia felt less magical and eventful than Phillpotts’ months aboard a Royal Mail Steamship, crewed by his sombre brother.

Despite the family connection, Phillpotts found himself devoid of anything approaching preferential treatment aboard the Tiber. His anticipated seclusion was ‘annihilated’ by the ‘little Frenchman’ who shared his cabin. He recalled one time, ‘under the perfect blaze of electric light’ when said Frenchman prescribed himself Champagne to ward off sea-sickness after communicating with his pet dog (‘a boarhound’) unseen some distance overhead. As time wore on Phillpotts took an ever greater interest in passengers, who ‘begin to know more about the sea than sailors do; they grow assertive, and growl and whine concerning the length of the voyage; they ask if anything is the matter with the ship, and want to know what has become of Barbados…’

Arriving by water to Saint Lucia, as many tourists on all-inclusive cruises still do, must have been of particular relief to Phillpotts. ‘As we approached Saint Lucia under a far-reaching brightness of morning, our Fourth Officer called my attention to different objects of interest. The first points he particularly insisted upon were very lofty ones: Gros Piton and Petit Piton.’

Those ‘tall, conical, densely-wooded mountain peaks shooting upwards from the shore’ are the motif of Chairman’s Reserve, one of the most popular rums home and away, made at Saint Lucia’s last working distillery. There, the landings of the new offices are thoroughly plastered with award certificates. Little wonder that Saint Lucia’s landscape was once punctuated by plantation distilleries amid seemingly endless acres of prodigious sugar canes.

Ostensibly to heighten the value of the ‘Gem of the Caribbean’ in tourism terms, Saint Lucia’s twice-serving Prime Minister, Kenny Anthony, mentioned at a rum-themed ceremony I attended that the French and British ‘thought it worth fighting over no fewer than 14 times.’ Phillpotts was aware of the struggle. According to his ship’s Fourth Officer, ‘an Englishman planted our flag on that Petit Piton when we were fighting the French here. Not a Frog could climb it, of course, so they had to blaze away ‘til they shot it down. But another time some iddies tried to get to the top and they were all lost – all died – stung to death, no doubt. Some of the vilest snakes in the world live here…’

Even more enjoyable than chiding the French, Phillpotts, who took no prisoners in his books, delighted in idly, and most likely fallaciously, romanticising the lifestyles of Saint Lucia’s much-maligned native Caribs. ‘The more I hear about these cannibal Caribs, the better I like them. There is little doubt that at one time they were by far the most powerful of so-called South American Indian tribes, and their manners and customs show much savage and instructive originality. They were wont to paint the bones of their dead relations artistically, and hang them around their houses…’

4More likely, the various hostilities which heightened in the 18th and 19th centuries between the British and the French were not about securing the ultimate playground, but harvesting the wealth of Saint Lucia’s flourishing sugar industry. Introduced in the late 1700’s, the tall cane, which can dwarf a human given its size, and floor them given the amount of labour taken to harvest and refine, revolutionised society. In colonial times, African slaves and then indentured Indian labourers who were promised land after their contracts ended, took the brunt of this toil. In some cases, their ancestors still remain.

‘Rumbullion’

In Rum: A Social and Sociable History, author Ian Williams discusses the intoxicating by-product of the sugar crop. ‘People knew that the molasses left behind by sugar refining fermented easily, but only the bold risked drinking it. However, put it through a still and you had a potent and palatable drink. They called it Kill-Devil, or ‘rumbullion’, ‘a hot hellish liquor,’ – and they loved it. Rum was born.’

The word most likely derived from ‘saccharum’ (Latin for sugar), and the first customers for the then raw cure-all were the very slaves who cultivated the cane. Soon rum rations, tempered by water and later lime to avert scurvy, were introduced by the British Royal Navy, giving the drink an international stage. And the casks used to transport it leant the fat distillate considerable complexity and colour.

However, by the 1950s only two working distilleries remained on Saint Lucia. The demand for sugar in Europe was on the decline while Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, South Africa and Thailand began to step up low-cost production. Bananas, care of Dutch giant Geest who purchased the Cul de Sac and Roseau Valleys, usurped the canes. The landscape became a very different one to that which drove Phillpotts to explore the West Indies. He wrote, ‘inland grows sugar-cane in bright green tracts and patches, ever sloping onwards and upwards to the fertile mountain-sides. Every hill is clothed to the topmost peak with foliage; there is nothing barren and naked here.’

Today, St. Lucia Distillers imports most of its molten wax-like molasses from Guyana, 640 miles to the south. Michael Speakman, Director of Sales and Marketing, told me how a diver regularly dons a wetsuit to couple the mile-long pipe from tanker mooring at the deep water Roseau Bay to the distillery. However, moves are afoot to see a closer integration between the island’s fertile soils and the distilleries’ copper stills. This will result in a super premium product made from home-grown canes, says Margaret Monplaisir the Managing Director. Something of a local celebrity, Monplaisir appears on mobile phone-sponsored billboards across the island. Her career, which spans 29 years, has seen a painstaking rise from roles in sales and distribution within the firm to governing it.

Monplaisir is one of a growing gamut of women in an industry which also includes Joy Spence, Master Blender of Appleton Estates Rum, Jamaica, and Lorena Vásquez Ampié, Master Distiller of Ron Zacapa, Guatemala. “There are lots of women in the process,” she said with a broad, welcoming smile. “We’ve played an important role over many years – being more precise when it comes to packaging and in the labs.”

 

5That is a very good thing according to Dr. Frank Ward, Chairman of the 18 producer-strong West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association (WIRSPA). ‘A sign of the times; things are changing gradually – but the contribution women can make has not yet reached its full potential,’ he said.

Monplaisir took me to a 5-acre plot behind the distillery where she is experimenting with a range of strains of sugar canes. Reaching for the intense nourishment of the sun, they can effortlessly reach 3 metres tall until slain by a sharp machete.

Nearby, in a thankfully breezy warehouse, I watched workers wearing sunglasses bleed juice from the felled canes using Diesel-propelled equipment which would have once been driven by mules: a much more raucous procedure than in Phillpotts’ epoch, but labour-intensive nonetheless. ‘I can still hear the slow crunching of the cane,’ he reminisces, ‘the steady splash and ripple of the juice streaming from beneath the giant wet rollers…’ The mounting bank of spent ‘bargasse’ (remnants) is then left to decay into mulch to eventually nourish the soil.

The Boiler House

In the distillery, a network of shiny pipes creeps towards shiny copper stills. Juice boisterously ferments and foams for three days in open vats, creating a sweet, heady fug. In small batches it is fed into a range of stills, some corpulent and another tall and rocket-like. They begin to heat to raise the alcoholic temperature of the toffee-coloured wash. Phillpotts most likely wrote of the enduring memory of this moment from the comfort of his bunk. ‘For my still part, I can still smell the hot air, sweet with molasses, oily with cocoa-nut; I can still see the long loft hails, streaked with sunshine, blazing with the juice in the boiling-house.’

2

In a workshop beside a convincing replica of old Castries on the distilleries popular “Rhythm and Rum” tour, an ironically tee-total cooper deftly mended casks imported from Jack Daniels, Tennessee. And later, in the lab, I clocked litre bottles of un-aged Denros Strong which, at 80% ABV, lives up to its name. I am told it is favoured by a dedicated old-guard of fishermen. ‘Just enough to light a canon,’ claimed a tourist.

That afternoon, the catamaran Endless Summer cut a sharper, faster dash than I expect the Tiber could have done. I stifled a chuckle when we headed for one of the island’s most idyllic beaches on account of its name, ‘Anse L’Ivrogne’ (French slang for ‘alcoholic’). My amiable crew, who perhaps experienced more fun than their passengers, hauled down the main sail featuring the Chairman’s Reserve livery. The on-board barkeep then mixed a little Denros Strong into a seamless, pinkish punch. Expecting its bite was worse than its bark, I ever so timidly raised the plastic glass to my lips, which, believe it or not, promptly began to curve upward. It was delicious.

 

3

It felt like seconds before the waters around us were teeming with merchants, from a mobile fishmonger to a conch seller who announced his arrival by blowing a shell deafeningly like an off-key trumpet. Phillpotts’ witty approach was, if anything, magnified by his historic journey. On returning to Southampton he was swarmed by nostalgia and patriotism. ‘Through smiles and tears the church bells clashed on, very sweet to the ears of wanderers,’ he wrote. ‘Amid their cheery clangour let your servant vanish. If he has drawn but a few true pictures form the strange world of ‘Sugar-Cane Land’; if he has lightened one leisure hour of a life’s journey; if he has brought the flitting sunlight of a laugh to one sad heart, his labour is well spent…’

Buy Chairman’s Reserve at thewhiskyexchange.com (£20.25)

Experience St. Lucia Distilleries guided ‘Rhythm of Rum’ tour, Monday-Friday, 9am-3pm. US$10 (£6); tour@sludistillers.com


WHERE TO EAT 

The island’s cuisine is a melting pot of West African, European (predominantly French and British) and East Indian cultures, which can result in unlikely dishes such as macaroni pie as well as chicken stew, rice and peas, and well-spiced, hearty fish broths.

Elena’s Café Italiano is the setting for some of the island’s most talked-about homemade ice creams and quality coffee (Rodney Bay Marina, Rodney Bay Village, Bay Walk Mall, Caribbean Cinemas and Castries).

Pink Plantation House is a mesmerisingly beautiful and lovingly-restored mansion now serving as a restaurant and shop featuring hand-painted ceramics. The wraparound terrace with atmospherically lethargic ceiling fans offers commanding views towards Martinique. Try the deep fried saltfish with tartare, Creole, and curry and honey dressings. (The Morn, Chef Harry Drive, Port Castries, Castries;  facebook.com/pages/The-Pink-Plantation-House)

Boucan by Hotel Chocolat features the signature ingredient of cocoa in almost every dish – to convincing effect. Try the nine-stage Bean-to-Boucan Tasting Plate. (Near Soufrière; thehotelchocolat.com). Also closer to home at new premises at Borough Market, London.

The Edge at the Harmony Suites Hotel is the setting for Swedish chef Bobo Bergstrom’s ‘Eurobbean’ fusion food. Particularly recommended is mahi mahi and braised conch (a little like a giant whelk) with warm green figs and salt fish salsa. (Gros Islet; edge-restaurant.com)


WHERE TO STAY

Located at the vibrant Reduit Beach near Rodney Bay, Royal by Rex Resorts offers solid, spacious accommodation including flower-festooned beds, which should not break the bank. (rexresorts.com/st-lucia)

Rising 600m above the sea, the secluded Jade Mountain encompasses ‘a cornucopia of organic architecture’ according to founder, Nick Troubetzkoy. (La Soufriere;  jademountainstlucia.com)

Consider renting your own villa, such as the three-bedroom, poolside Villa St. Lucia at Marigot Bay, which is even served by its own gardener and housekeeper. (oasismarigot.com)


FESTIVAL

Pigeon Point National Park plays host in large part to the annual 12 day-long St. Lucia Jazz & Arts Festival (April-May). For over 20 years it has drawn an array of international talents including Rihanna, the late Amy Winehouse and Smokey Robinson. (stluciajazz.org)


EXPERIENCE THE ISLAND’S ORIGINS

A reminder of Saint Lucia’s raison d’être, Sulphur Springs bills itself as ‘the world’s only drive-in volcano’ (located near Soufrière – French for ‘sulphur’). Also visit the Botanical Gardens; the Majestic twin peaks; The Pitons; and rainforests.


 USEFUL INFORMATION

  • Dialling code: +1
  • St. Lucia is five hours behind GMT
  • British High Commission: +1 758 452 2484
  • Tourism (motto ‘Simply Beautiful’): http://stlucianow.com
  • Peak season: mid-December to April; hurricane season, June to November
  • NB. It is forbidden to wear camouflage clothing on the island

GETTING THERE

BA (britishairways.com) and Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com) operate frequent direct flights from Gatwick (8-9 hours) to Hewanorra International Airport, 40 miles south of capital Castries. As a general guide, a taxi to Rodney Bay in the north costs approximately US$90 (£53).


GETTING AROUND

Although just 27 miles long by 14 miles wide (equivalent to Toronto), the winding, climbing roads make for slow progress, particularly in the most popular form of transport for tourists, the minibus. Allow up to two hours for a meander from the north to south. Considering the condition of some tracks, car hire, which requires a temporary driver’s permit, is not for the faint of heart. A taxi may be rented for a whole day for approximately £130.


UNCAP 5 OTHER CARIBBEAN RUMS

Westerhall’s Plantation from nearby spice island, Grenada, was originally made by watermill. It is notably smooth (£29.65 thedrinkshop.com) while their over-proof Jack Iron (70%), makes a formidable base for mixing (£40.70)

Hampden Gold from Jamaica represents a return to sugar for the family of former Los Angeles actress Christelle Harris, who puts heart and soul into her rums. A light rum with a considerable poke, it benefits from one of the longest, most enriching fermentation times in the industry (£17.99 drinksupermarket.com)

Doorly’s XO from Barbados is designed to appeal to whisky drinkers, having been finished in softening Oloroso sherry casks. The mouth-feel is particularly substantial – almost lozenge-like (£26.15 thewhiskyexchange.com)

Mount Gay, also from Barbados, dates from 1703, meaning it can vie for the title of one of the oldest rum brands in the world. Keep an eye out for Mount Gay’s supperclubs, where each course is paired with both rum and a rum cocktail (£18 Waitrose)

Angostura is part owner of St. Lucia Distillers. Their own rum from Trinidad and Tobago financially eclipsed their distinctively-packaged bitters in 1962 and every year since. A long maturation in bourbon casks lends a distinctively milk chocolate-like flavour (£25.48 thedrinkshop.com)


RUM PUNCH

This recipe comes from restaurateur, author and TV presenter, Stevie Parle

Makes approx 2 litres/3½ pints

1

INGREDIENTS

  • juice of eight limes
  • 35ml grenadine syrup
  • 500ml/17 fl oz dark rum
  • 250ml/8½ fl oz white rum
  • 500ml/17 fl oz pineapple juice
  • 500ml/17 fl oz orange juice
  • 8 drops of Angostura bitters
  • a dash of grated nutmeg
  • pineapple slices, to garnish
  • soda water (optional)

METHOD

Combine all the ingredients in a large jug and fill up with ice cubes.

Stir well and top with soda water if you don’t want it to be too strong.

Garnish with pineapple slices.

Experience Stevie Parle’s cooking at London’s Dock Kitchen, 342-344 Ladbroke Grove, London, W10 5BU dockkitchen.co.uk

His latest book, ‘Spice Trip: The Simple Way to Make Food Exciting’ is published by Vintage


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