Saturday April 9, 2011
The rum coast
By Andrew Marshall
Rum conjures up images of sailors, pirates or smugglers on isolated beaches by the light of a silvery moon . . . It’s also intrinsically connected with the islands of the Caribbean.
Saturday afternoon, and it’s market day in the historic town of Saint-Pierre on the west coast of Martinique, that seductive little slice of France in the Lesser Antilles chain of the Caribbean.
The sleeping volcano Mt Pelee looms over a scene where colourfully dressed women sell exotic fruits and vegetables from their stalls along the seafront. Down inside the Snack Caribe bar, a group of men wearing wide-brimmed straw hats are enjoying their weekly game of dominoes, the silence broken only by the swift clack-clack of the tiles and short bursts of laughter.
One of the players, tuna fisherman Jen-Luc Eugene, is busily helping himself to the selection of rums from a tray at the bar.
“People on the island drink rum every day because it’s good for them. It’s what makes the men in Martinique vigorous,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
Jean-Luc then expertly mixes up a couple of ti-punches, the local rum cocktail of white rum, sugar cane syrup and lime, and proudly hands the glasses across to us. We take a swig of the fiery liquor the island is famous for, then grin at each other. It’s an apt beginning to our Martinique rum adventure.
The history of rum is also the history of sugar. Martinique’s rum culture has its roots dug deep in the early 1500s at the time of Christopher Columbus’ second journey to the Caribbean.
He imported a plant that was to revolutionise the economy of the whole region and the drinking culture of the world — sugar cane or Saccharum officinarum, a tall, thick grass that has its origins in the islands of Indonesia in the East Indies.
The first French settlers in the 1600s wasted no time in establishing sugar plantations and mills, despite resistance from the original inhabitants, the Carib Indians. Cultivation of the sugar cane plant required hard manual labour, and millions of slaves were shipped from Africa and India to work in the fields to help supply the insatiable demand in Europe for sugar.
Sugar mill operators soon discovered that from the leftovers of the sugarcane used for making sugar molasses, it was possible to distil a delicious alcoholic beverage that became known as rum.
The following day, we drive the scenic road from Saint-Pierre, which winds through a rainforest of tree ferns, anthurium-covered hillsides, clumps of bamboo and along the flanks of volcanic mountain peaks. We’re on our way to a patchwork of sugar cane fields in the hills above Saint-Marie on the island’s northeast coast.
Carried by a lazy sea breeze, the sweet smell of burnt sugar cane fields permeates the air. Far down below, plumes of smoke rise from the Saint-James rum distillery that is already busy converting the cane juice into liquid gold. The sugar cane season in Martinique runs from February to mid-June, and some of the cane is still cut by hand on hilly sections that are unsuitable for machines.
Cane cutter Victor Jacquot has been hard at work since the cool of dawn repeatedly slashing at the billowing stalks of cane.
“Its tough, backbreaking work,” he tells us, putting down his molasses-stained scythe and lighting up a smoke. “We often have a few rum ti-punches on the job to break the monotony.”
After cutting, the sugar cane is transported by truck to the distillery for crushing. Saint-James is just one of a dozen or so rum distilleries scattered throughout the island — the largest number in the Eastern Caribbean.
From the intimate JM distillery in a tropical rainforest setting on the northeastern coast, to La Mauny nestled in the midst of lush sugar cane fields in the south, every rum producer has its own distinct character and special products, its own history and secrets.
For curious visitors like us, they provide a fascinating focus while exploring the island. Most offer free guided tours where it’s possible to attend all phases of rum production: arrival of the sugar cane in carts, crushing of the cane in mills, the fermenting vat, distilling columns, the bottling process, and lastly — the best bit — the tasting session and the opportunity to purchase bottles of rum.
Two types of rum are produced on Martinique, both rhum agricole (made from freshly crushed sugarcane juice) and rhum industriel (made from molasses, the thick black treacle left after the juice from the sugar cane has crystallised).
Traditional clear or white rums follow a short fermenting period of around three months in stainless steel storage vats (typically of 40, 50 & 55% alcohol content); and dark rums are the result of a long and specific fermentation and aging process in oak barrels. During the aging process, the rum acquires a golden colour that changes to a dark brown with time.
Although some consumers prefer the younger white rums, most connoisseurs prefer the more elegant taste of an aged spirit.
Aging can last from one to 30 years or more, making rum one of the most varied of the distilled spirits. They are granted the description “dark or aged” rums after three years of aging — names such as “very old” or “vintage”, “XO” or “dated” may denote more aging.
Those of you who are fans of well-aged single malt scotches or cognacs might be tempted to thumb your nose at some of the age statements printed on bottles of rum. But there’s a reason for this. In Martinique and other Caribbean islands, the aging of rum differs notably from the aging of some other spirits in Europe.
The Caribbean climate is warmer and more humid and, therefore, the aging process is faster than, for example, with malt whiskies in cool Scotland.
Generally, Martinique’s younger, white rums are best used to make cocktails while the aged rums, frequently compared to high-quality French brandies, are best treated as you might a single-malt whiskey — straight or on the rocks.
Whether it’s a whiskey in a Scottish bar, a cigar smoked in Cuba or an aged rum enjoyed in the French West Indies, there’s nothing better than savouring the local product in the country where it’s produced.
On our last evening we find ourselves outside lovely beachside accommodation in the picturesque fishing village of Saint-Luce on the south coast, opening a bottle of vintage 1982 Bally rum. As silhouetted coconut palms sway gently in the sea breeze, we clink our glasses to Martinique, “island of rum.”
Ti-Punch: ½ part sugar cane syrup, 4 parts white rum, 1 slice of lemon or lime, 1 ice cube.
Planter’s Punch: ½ part sugar cane syrup, 2 parts white rum, 4 parts fruit juice, cinnamon, nutmeg and grated vanilla bean. Blend and serve.
Daiquiri: 1 part sugar cane syrup, 4 parts white rum, 1 part lemon juice. Shake with ice.
Tigress Milk: 1 tin sweetened condensed milk, ½ pint water, 2 cups liquid coffee, 4 liqueur glasses dark/aged rum. Shake with ice.
Pina Colada: 2 parts pineapple juice, 1 part coconut liqueur and 1 part white rum. Shake with ice.
Mojito: Put ½ a tablespoon of sugar, the juice of half a lime and some lightly crushed mint leaves in a tall glass. Stir and mix well, then add some soda water, 1½ oz white rum and ice.