Saturday, October 31, 2009
Where the rum comes from (or at least a bit of it) A drive up to Grenada's River Antoine Estate Distillery pt.1
We're going for a drive in Grenada, half way around the world from Aitutaki. Leaving Maca Bana in the extreme southern 'tail' of the island, guide Roger Augustine and I began heading north up Grenada's west (Caribbean) coast. It's a beautiful tropical island in the volcanic, Windwards mold -soaring forest -clad mountains, steep cultivated valleys and rushing rivers. The road skirts a dramatic, wildly irregular coastline indented with palm-backed bays and coves, each embracing its own beach -gold, beige or volcanic 'black' sand -take your pick. We passed through a series of old towns, many bearing names that are a legacy of France's early dominion over the island.
Along the way:
Gran Roi: The King Of Calypso, Slinger Francisco 'the Mighty Sparrow' was born here, and not in Trinidad as often assumed (okay, as I assumed). Musically, Grenada is 'soca' country.
Concord Falls: Where a good-sized boa coiled in the rafters of a derelict zinc-roofed bus stop (or souvenir stand?). Right off the road and nice for a dip. If you're lucky you'll pass country folk coming down from the hills with loads balanced on their heads or pack-laden donkeys.
Dougaldston Spice Boucan: Step back a few centuries into this worn but working 'boucan' -French creole for drying platform (the word being 'barbecue' on islands with English heritage). "Boucan', 'Buccaneers', 'barbecue', jerked meat, that's all part of another story, but workers here will give a short explanation of the spices they process and their uses.
Gouyave Nutmeg Processing Plant: (old West Indies style warehouse). Lot's of nutmeg. What's great about these places is that they're working, traditional operations, not (yet) museums. I'll have more to say some other time about this spice that figures so prominently in Grenada's story that it's pictured on the national flag. The glossy, dark shells that are a bi-product of processing are so abundant, however, that they are used as an attractive mulch around plantings. Spread around homes the brittle shells also serve as a 'Grenadian burgler alarm". Gouyave is also the site of 'Fish Fridays' a big jump up with street music, food and of course -rum.
Spice Cloth Grenada, Concord: Printing/clothing workshop of designer Jessie-Ann Jessamy (in another old West Indies spice warehouse) where the girls are busy at work hand-screening nutmeg-motif prints to produce fashionable bags and clothing -distinctive and useful momentos of Grenada. Also rum (and samples) and other traditional Grenadian items like Morne Delice nutmeg jams and syrup (unusual and delicious) http://sites.google.com/site/spiceclothgrenada/
Grenada Bay: Swim in the sheltered 'rock pools' at Bathway Beach.
Way up north at the 'top' of the island we stopped for what Roger promised would be a memorable lunch. There aren't many places where you can actually tell exactly where you are on the globe by simply looking, but Petite Anse (from $120 low season -$250 high season including full English breakfast; www.petiteanse.com) is one of them. The view of the Caribbean and the Grenadine Islands sweeping northwestwards over the horizon is mesmerizing. Opened last March (2009) by English couple Philip and Anne with Iggy the Egret (a local), Petite Anse (little cove) has only 11 cottages and suites on a lush hillside; solar-heated water, 'eco-friendly', all with that astounding view. The Clifts grow much of their own organic fruit and vegetables for the restaurant. Pretty damned idyllic even for super-idyllic Grenada, although it may be a bit isolated for some travelers, or at least far from the St. George's/ Grand Anse 'action' -be that as it may. What do guests do up here besides relax on the beach and gape at the view? "Well" says Philip, "they can hit the bars in Sauteurs (French for 'leapers' -every island in the East Caribbean seems to have a place where the Caribs threw themselves over a cliff rather than submit to the Europeans), or a fisherman can take them out for a picnic out on Sandy Island, they can catch a fish, have a barbecue -they'll have the whole place to themselves." Petite Anse also provides their guests with local cellphones to keep in touch while off knocking around the island on their own, a welcome trend at 'boutique' hotels.
Oh yeah, lunch -I tried the recommended callaloo ravioli, although Bernardo Bertucci of LaLuna (i.e. an Italian) would probably call them 'agnolotti'. I'd call them callaloo pierogi -after all, the head chef is Polish. Roger had the pan seared mahi mahi (even in the West Indies they have to call 'dolphin-fish' by it's Hawaiian name to avoid needlessly upsetting tourists) and the macaroni 'pie' (baked mac 'n cheese). He was right. This was one of my best meals on the island - and eating on Grenada, with it's creole based cooking and fresh tropical ingredients, is wonderful.
Rounding the island, we turned southwards along the East Coast, detouring up the landing strip of Pearls, Grenada's long-defunct original airport, where Grenadians now hone their driving skills. I was glad to see there's still a functioning 'Runway Bar' decades after the airport's abandonment (no, we didn't stop). After a passing glance at Lake Antoine (a water-filled volcanic crater -scenically unspectacular but excellent for bird-watching), tall stands of sugar cane crowding the road signaled that we were entering Antoine River Estate, a plantation dating from French rule.
Established in 1785, a visit to River Antoine Distillery would be fascinating for anyone interested in early industrial-age technology in action (it's as if the 'Cutty Sark' was still doing commercial transatlantic runs), the plantation system, West Indian history and culture, rum or other artisanal food production -in fact, for anyone with any interests. I guess that would have ruled out Nico. The last time I was in Grenada I had visited Westerhall Estate Distillery (a source of 'Jack Iron' rum), and was greeted by mountains of pungent 'bagasse' or spent sugar cane. That's all a thing of the past. Now the island's rum is produced from imported molasses, that is except for River Antoine, which is still distilled from freshly pressed cane juice like the 'rhum agricole' of the French islands. I reckoned it would taste and smell as such.
Entering the weathered distillery complex I was met by the sight of two towering, wood-fired copper 'pot stills'. You'd expect to see these sorts of antiques inside a museum, if they could fit. In fact, thanks to an attendant who was stoking the blazing furnaces with carefully chosen hunks of trees, they were happily cooking away. As I circled the distilling shed there was the cane mill, powered by a gigantic cast-iron waterwheel -the product of some long-gone English foundry. Workers fed a steady stream of cane into a wooden chute leading up to the press (yeah, watch those hands). With those infernal blazes and 'White Zombie' (1931) technology, a night tour would be very atmospheric, but perhaps dangerous. Afterwards, the 'bagasse' is dumped into a heap by a worker continuously pushing a cart back and forth along a short length of elevated tracks -supposedly Grenada's shortest, and only 'railroad' (unless you count the few yards of rail that the mace drying platforms roll on like giant drawers from underneath the Dougaldston Spice Boucan.) The cane juice flows along an open sluice into a building where it is concentrated in a succession of huge open vats, then fermented, again in the open air. The fermented 'wash' is then piped to those massive, prehistoric looking copper stills. "It takes 10 days from cane to rum" explained the guide, with all the product going out unaged or 'white' except for an excellent 36 proof bottled punch that's reminiscent of the Angostura version from Trinidad.
People warned I may not find the odors of the distillery pleasant (in fact, nauseating), but there was absolutely nothing disagreeable in either the sweet, heady smell of the freshly crushed cane, its fermenting juices, or the very agreeable, faintly banana aroma of the (barely) finished product. After distillation, the rum's alcohol content is gauged by means of an antique (but ingenious) specific gravity scale, then adjusted to the desired proof with the addition of water. Of course samples are offered (you don't need more than a thimbleful of the Rivers Royale (75 -80%) over-proof to get the picture, or even of Rivers Rum, the slightly watered-down 69% version that's permissible for packing for your flight home. Even with that, this is pretty combustible stuff.
Distillery tour EC$5/$2USD p.p.
River Antoine Estate Distillery ( 473 442-7109; no website; email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
the view from Maca Bana
I was hosted in Grenada by Maca Bana -only a 5 minute walk from Maurice Bishop Airport (good story here) , so no time is wasted getting into relax mode at this cliff-top 'green' resort's 7 villa/cottages. Breath-taking vista of the Caribbean, St. George's and the mountains of Grenada from your bed (or hot tub). Directly below (steep) there's quiet Magazine Beach for swimming and snorkeling, then try the ginger-orange glazed lobster and other fresh seafood at Maca Bana's recently re-opened beach restaurant 'Aquarium' (www.aquarium-grenada.com) highly regarded by both locals and ex-pats. In fact, across the island I heard nothing but unsolicited praise for Uli Kühn & Rebecca Thompson, hard-working owners of Aquarium /Maca Bana). (from $295; www.macabana.com).
For colorful, old-school souvenirs like tea towels, table cloths and tee-shirts festooned with maps, Grenadian flags and island scenes; embroidered patches and other cool stuff (well, I think so), swing by the 'Shipwreck Department Store' (no website, tel: 440-1521) on Granby St, downtown St. George's near the market.
For more Grenada info:
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
A south-sea paradise proves even better than the fake one in 'A Brooklyn Gorilla Meets Bela Lugosi'
Since the band isn't doing much right now, I figured I'd start with this photo, taken in Aitutaki last March (2009). I then had the pleasure of traveling to The Cook Islands with a great press group including real deal photo-journalist Sergio Ortiz (http://www.sergiosfstop.com/), Kristin Luna (camelsandchocolate.com) and globe-trotter extraodinaire (and as I got to know, all-around swell guy) Johnny 'Jet' DiScala (http://www.johnnyjet.com/home.asp). Johnny snapped the picture. I don't know if it was the power of suggetion, or some darker forces at work, but I kept thinking his name was DiMarco. It always beat me that the mad scientist in the film 'Astro Zombies' (USA, 1968) wasn't called some suitably Eastern-European sounding name like Zoloff or Zarnoff, but DiMarco. It was the late John Carridine, who in his portrayal of the infirm, but determined, Doctor exclaimed "commence immediate astro-mobilization!" (or something damn close to that). The Fleshtones admired those sentiments so much we used the quote on the fold-out for our album 'Powerstance' (Trafalgar Records, 1990). As you recall, that was during the band's brief foray as Australian recording artists.
As I was saying, the sudden (I'll say!!!) folding of Modern Bride Magazine, which I've been lucky enough to contribute to over the past eight years, has finally 'freed up' time for me to do a bit of writing without the stress of deadlines, or torturing myself to stay under 'word count'. You know, some travel (with and without The Fleshtones -God knows that couldn't help but give me some insights), food, who knows, maybe even some music. 'A life of excitement' like living In An Elvis movie. A overstatement true, but who wants to read about me going to Key Food to buy oatmeal? Now, even though the L himself was dismissive of his film career, who else could lay claim to being their very own movie genre? And there's something very attractive about a life (be it only a celluloid one) of wildly unrelated (except for their potential for excitement) occupations -Hawaiian helicopter guide, ex-Navy diver, race car driver, race car driver, etc -with the ability to find himself in the middle of at least a half dozen musical production numbers per outing, ending with Elvis getting the girl of his fancy for that particular movie -and actually being happy about it. How much better than his real-life loneliness and miserable death. But I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.
It's about an hour's hop from the 'main island' of Rarotonga, where the international airport is located, to Aitutaki, pronounced 'Ah -too -taki' although locals seem to say 'Ah -too -tucky' as in 'Tucky Buzzard'. Even in the olden days this tiny speck in the middle of the vastness of the Pacific (pop. 2,000) somehow merited its own postage stamps. There was one pictured in the used Harris stamp catalogue (Aitutaki -comes after Aden Protectorate in the British Empire section) that my Uncle Eddie Ostach gave me when I was about 7 years old. Then I could have never in a million years imagined that one day I'd be living a block away from the Ostach's old home on Jewel Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. How many years did I spend obsessing on these little rectangles of paper and the far away places they represented? Just ask photographer Anders Goldfarb (www.andersgoldfarb.com) Hopefully, I'll have a link right here someday to the exciting tales of our pre-adolescent adventures in philately (wouldn't it be great if the 'link' could be so direct I wouldn't have to bother writing anything?).
The old Aitutaki stamp pictured a native chieftain striking a typically proud pose under a palm tree while sporting some outlandish mask or headdress (okay, I can't remember which) of the sort we grew up seeing extras wearing in jungle and south-sea island B-movies like 'Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla' (USA, 1952). Starring Lewis and Martin look-a-likes 'Duke' Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo (recently deceased, this August 17, 2009) -look for future musings on Petrillo, my teenage years in the cultural Dark Ages and the birth of The Fleshtones). I hadn't seen the film since the early 70's and dismissed it as a turkey -until our bassist Ken Fox urged me to take another look. Once again The Canadian Fleshtone judged wisely, 'The Brooklyn Gorilla' is far more entertaining than anything the real Lewis & Martin ever released -and it does contain Duke Mitchell's immortal come-on to a south-sea beauty: "It's hard to believe that's the same moon shining tonight over The Bronx, Brooklyn and Coney Island." Try that line while marveling at the star splashed Cook Island night sky.
At the tiny airport greeted with songs ('string band'), flowered leis, and a short drive (all drives are short here) to Pacific Resorts Aitutaki, the island's most stylish hotel. Along the way we passed through villages that straggled along the road very much like 'out island' settlements in The Bahamas, except for the tombs in people's front yards. Land in The Cooks is ancestral and despite migration, the families that pray together, stay together -forever.
From its lush, palm-lined drive to its zen-ed out reception flanked by Balinese reflecting lily pools, entering the The Pacific Resorts Aitutaki (www.pacificresort.com) is soothing, beautiful and 'cool'. An artificial waterfall dramatically cascades from under the restaurant to the swimming pool below which in turn overlooks the brilliant blue lagoon lined with royal palms. From our bungalow's back porches, steps led down to a white-sand beach strewn with huge boulders of black volcanic rock. Taking advantage of a few minutes break, we waded out into the luxuriously warm, shallow water. Sometimes you've got to pinch yourself, although some people might have been put off by the cove's abundance of sea cucumbers. Who knows, perhaps the stiff, turd-like creatures are just seasonal. They certainly don't pose a threat of any sort.
The gift shop was stocked with classy stuff -quality folk art and handicrafts, genuine ukuleles, the sort of mementos you actually would like to bring home to prove to yourself you were really here. An odd ceramic figurine of a white parrotfish covered with black paisley-like patterns was so unusual I took a picture of it. What was it, a candleholder, or something? Whatever it was, at the equivalent of $35USD, it was a bargain, but I'm not much of a shopper (or maybe the ideal one) as I'll almost always defer buying anything, then regret it later. Remember, with the NZ$ then running about 55¢USD, everything in the Cooks -great hotels, meals, booze, black pearls, stuff, was a steal. Regretting not buying the fish, I slunk past the gift shop later that evening. It was already closed. Later, at the manager's cocktail party I discussed the ceramic fish with Michael Shah, a real go-to GM as far as guest's needs. He regretted that as much as he'd like to help, the woman who runs the shop takes the keys home with her. She wouldn't be back to reopen until after we departed the island. I gave him my credit card information just in case.
Anyway, if you've come all the way to Aitutaki, the one 'must-do' is a boat excursion across the (semi)atoll's spectacular lagoon -broad enough to easily swallow up all of Rarotonga and some, to visit the tiny 'motu' (cay) of Tapuaetai, or 'One Foot Island'. There's a choice of several boats, all offer a similar itinerary. We took the smaller boat from Bishop's Tours (NZ$65 pp; www.bishopscruises.com). On the way across the lagoon, we landed on one of the 'motu' that served as a location for 'Survivor: Cook Islands' , as well as sailing past Akaiami Teal Lodge, the idyllic thatched-roofed 'eco-retreat' where contestants voted off the island waited out the filming of the series.
"I wouldn't mind being voted off to there for a few weeks" quipped a mind-reading young Dane. The vastness of the sea, the passing palm-fringed islets, the boat cutting through the clear, aqua water - I found myself singing snatches of Elvis' 'Rock A Hula Baby'. The setting demanded it. The Dane agreed (God bless little Denmark, too bad it's the one Scandinavian country where The Fleshtones have no public) leading to a discussion of Elvis-in-the-tropics scenarios to the utter indifference of his female companion. Not that it's the same thing, but Gordon Spaeth once commented that it was moments like this that triggered a "plethora of ridiculous ideas in his head', a condition he blamed on a childhood saturated with preposterous TV fare. While on The Fleshtones first cross-country tour in 1980, Gordon's brother Brian Spaeth (Clocks Stopped At A Strange And Savage Hour, Serious Ink Press, 2009) confessed amid the grandeur of Carlsbad Caverns (our road manager hated it, but it was just one of many sight-seeing detours made under the threat of mutiny) that natural wonders like this had been totally ruined for him by seeing so many papier-mâché caverns in stuff like 'World Of The Vampires' (El Mundo Do Los Vampiros, Mexico: 1960). Faced with the real thing, he sadly said he half expected Abel Salazar to step out from behind a 'fake' stalagmite.
Once there, it's easy enough to see how miniscule One Foot Island got its name. It's one of the world's places that trades on its claim of having the world's smallest post office. True or not, once there we all had our postcards canceled and mailed at the tin-roofed pavilion/post office, although I balked at the idea of a foot-shaped souvenir stamp in my passport. You really don't need a passport to land on One Foot Island, so I don't go for the idea of disrespecting the pages of mine with 'novelty' stamps, no matter how exotic. The two boat's crews broke out the guitars and 'ukes' and serenaded us (as much as themselves, Cook Island folks love to sing) cooking us up a lunch of parrotfish fillets on the griddle. The crew cooked the up the skeletal remains (which still had plenty of sweet meat on the bones) for themselves and were pleased when I asked if I could gnaw on one (don't worry, Zaremba wasn't scarfing up all the poor crew's fish bones). I don't know if it was the grease, the cold 'VB' (Australia's Victoria Bitter -the beer of choice in The Cooks, although try the local 'Matutu' brew) or the tropical beauty of the whole scene, but I couldn't have thought of a better lunch, or place to be, in the whole world.
On the way back, we were treated to more songs and some of the most amazing snorkeling I'd ever enjoyed (and that includes Roatan, Belize and Bonaire). In the lagoon's shallow (about 14 feet) almost luminescent water we swam through flocks of bizarre Pacific species totally new to me -lavishly colored 'Picassofish' and bizarre, aptly named, Unicornfish. There, embedded in the coral heads, were the giant clams -bigger and better than ever pictured in childhood 'How And Why' books or 'The Golden Encyclopedia'. Okay then, but these things are real, say over 2 feet long (photo: thanks to Kristin Luna). Diving closer, you could see the the arabesque patterns on the clam's flesh begin to flash changing colors as it sensed the approach of a swimmer. When my hand got a bit too close, the until-then sedentary clam suddenly 'whooshed' shut. Made me think of those old south-sea flicks where one of these behemoth bivalves traps the foot of some hapless diver. You'd never break loose.
Every major hotel in The Cooks hosts a weekly 'Island Night'. I'd go every night if I could. I'd hate to choose which I liked best, but if you held a gun to my head I'd have to say I preferred the show at the 'looser' (but wonderful) Aitutaki Lagoon Resort (www.aitutakilagoonresort.com), sister property to venerable and (fun) Rarotongan Resort. Reached by a small ferry across a narrow channel, the resort's sandy lanes, huts on stilts (all the modern conveniences) and torch light evokes a longed-after Polynesia surpassing any pre-1964-5 World's Fair preconceptions. And again, for any Americans (who still have any money left to spend), the resort, like everything in The Cooks, is an amazing deal for what you get. At Island Night you sit around (too bad not on mats -idea guys, idea) feasting on fresh fish, including 'ika mata' (pretty much the national dish -hunks of raw tuna or mahimahi, marinated in lime juice, onions and coconut milk like the 'poisson cru' of French Polynesia), roast pig and New Zealand lamb while enjoying hip-shaking dancing girls and chanting guys in grass skirts accompanied by explosive drumming punctuated with shouts. Exciting stuff. It's not to hard to perceive echos of less peaceful times. These guys must have been pretty tough customers in the old days. It's fashionable (mandatory?) these days to mock the efforts of the missionaries, but I wouldn't have wanted to be the 'guest of honor' at a Cook Islands luau before their embracing of the Good Book. Now tourists are plucked out of the audience to demonstrate how lame we are at rapid-fire hip gyrations. "You've got to relax" counseled my impromptu instructor as she massaged my almost fused shoulders. Sometimes you just can't cut loose. Now Elvis, or Duke Mitchell, would have done a lot better. They would have cued the band to some hip number and put themselves in control of all the moves. That's how the so-called white man operates.
That night on the drive back to our hotel, we swerved to avoid the land crabs and a body stretched across the road. Carefully backing up, we checked for signs of life but it didn't look good. Unexpectedly, the guy stirred. He apologetically explained he was waiting for a lift and had decided to get comfortable. Back in Rarotonga, our guide said his island was 'so safe you can sleep in the road". Now here was a place where people actually did sleep in the road, or at least pass out on it. The man thanked us for the lift, and catching a second wind, realized he was an old acquaintance of Papatua ( the Cook Islands representative who accompanied us). They carried on the night's proceedings, most likely at The Aitutaki Fisherman's Club near the Government Wharf. Night-birds can also hit the disco/dancehall across the road where a late night food van usually parks.
Early the next morning, hours before the resort's shops opened, we left to catch our plane back to Rarotonga. As I rushed out of the terminal and started across the tarmac to the waiting plane, someone came running, shouting for me to stop. WTF was this all about? He handed me a package. Inside was the ceramic fish.
more info: http://www.cookislands.travel/
The return of Mr. Pro
Thanks again to Ken Fox, Mr. Pro has made a come back, to shore up The Fleshtones foothold in the glamorous world of fine apparel. Available where ever The Fleshtones can be found, black only.
Next: Rarotonga -Mysterious Island of the Black Pearl. Also: Grenada -Where the rum is from (or at least some of it); and Island Routes is launched in Jamaica.