Extracting the spirit within

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Zubin D’souza

The Peruvian Amazon is filled with many perils. There is an unrelenting jungle and less than sociable animals who do not take the encroachment of their territory very lightly. The jungle, however, has been a draw for tourists and explorers alike. Archaeologists who seek out treasures and history that predate the Incas and the conquistadores have always been drawn to the spot where history has largely been forgotten and overrun with vines and jungle. Anthropologists however are the ones who discovered the true hidden treasure. It is a drink called ‘masato de yucca’.

Masato de yucca has been a fixture for the indigenous tribes for over a thousand years. It is prepared from manioc which is also called cassava, a tuber known for its toxic cyanide content.

The preparation technique is unique and hasn’t changed over time. The cassava is boiled and then mashed. Clumps of the mash are picked up by the brewers and chewed for about half an hour stretches and then spat back into the bucket. The saliva that is utilised while chewing breaks down the starch in the tuber into sugar, which helps the yeast work on it and trigger the fermentation process. If you do happen to watch the process and are offered a glass of the drink, it is impolite to refuse. The members of the tribe could take offense at what is essentially an insult. You wouldn’t want to upset them since tales of covert cannibalism are still linked to some of the tribes!

Globe artichokes are somewhat of an outsider in the culinary sphere. This relative of the thistle is difficult to procure and a pain to prepare. We all see them standing there but only a limited few among us actually want to invite them in to be a part of our world. They actually come into their own when they are converted into ‘cynar’. Cynar is a liqueur that hovers around a 16.5 per cent alcohol component making it just right since it avoids the sharp bite of one with a higher alcohol content.

Another relative of the thistle is a plant called carlina acaulis. Ancient folklore holds that the plant was presented to Emperor Charlemagne by an angel to cure his troops who had contracted the plague. The soldiers recovered and the Emperor ordered a church to be built on the spot. Not too far away and shortly after this incident, the monks of the recently formed Abbey di Sant’Antimo started creating an amaro style liqueur called ‘Amaro di Sant’Antimo’!

When Julius Caesar frequently appeared in public topped with a laurel wreath, he was solving a dual purpose. In Ancient Rome, the laurel leaf was a symbol of victory, peace and imperial status. It was meant to crown the leader after an important victory at battle. Julius Caesar, however, dispensed off with tradition and wore it whenever he made any public appearances to reassert his position as the head of the Roman Empire and also because of the medicinal properties of this wild-growing herb. While laurel leaves make impactful appearances in many a food dish, there is a time immemorial recipe that increased its popularity!

The liquore all’alloro is a laurel leaf-based liqueur that is prepared by steeping fresh laurel leaves in high-proof grain alcohol. The alcohol strips off the colour and flavour from the leaves creating a vibrant green and herbaceous concoction which needs to be balanced with the addition of sugar syrup. This liqueur is absolutely easy to prepare and can keep for years leading to it becoming a favourite for the home brewer and an excellent homemade gift.

Since 1998, Quebec has been home to a unique wine industry. Pascale Miche, originally from Belgium has a sprawling tomato vineyard. Don’t go rubbing your eyes; you read that right! Pascale Miche converts the six varieties of heirloom tomatoes he grows into critic appreciated wine. The winemaking process remains unchanged; only substituting tomatoes for grapes. Apparently the wines are so good that aficionados often mistake his fruit-based wines for the real grape extracted varieties. The only challenge is getting his wine to display colour. Tomatoes contain no tannins in the skin and so the wines will almost always appear like white wine.

Colour or not, I am definitely always choosing this over the chewed out tubers in the Amazon!