Well, it’s 2012 now – the last year of human existence (if you believe a small number of Central American people and a disturbingly large number of conspiracy theorists), or, more likely, the year us Brits show the world just how inept we are at staging an Olympic Games, plus the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking, and the 75th birthday of Daffy Duck.
Christmas is over (although there’s still an enormous amount of leftover turkey to be eaten and, courtesy of my employer, a whole ham too). And New Year in Placencia is nothing but a dim memory, caused partly by age and partly by excessive consumption of cashew wine.
For those of you thinking that cashews are nuts, and how could one possibly make wine from nuts, well, the cashew tree (which grows in the tropics, mainly in Africa and Asia) produces a fruit that looks like a upside-down sweet pepper with a kidney bean dangling from the bottom. The fruit (the inverted pepper) is full of juicy pulp, which is apparently very sweet and tasty. But it’s also very fragile, making it unsuitable for transport. Which is why you don’t see cashew fruit juice on your local supermarket’s shelves.
The bean-shaped dangling bit contains a single seed, which is the cashew nut – it’s a seed in the botanical sense and a nut in the culinary sense, and, if you don’t mind other people’s pee-stained fingers fondling your food, it’s also a delicious bar snack.
Taking your minds off filthy fingers touching your nuts, the fruit can also be used to make alcohol – in Goa, Indians ferment the fruit juice and then distil it to produce a clear liquid called Feni, a 40% liquor that tastes like lighter fluid but, like vodka, goes well with various soft drinks and ice. And, according to the font of all knowledge that is Wikipedia, people in Mozambique make a drink from the fruit, which translates rather worryingly as ‘burning water’!
Cashew farmers in Belize make cashew wine, using the standard formula of crushing the fruit, adding yeast, then heating and fermenting it, to make a brew somewhere between 6 and 12% alcohol. There are some commercially available wines, but the one I tried was homemade (by my travelling companion James’s colleague’s godfather), and had apparently been aging for several years, so Lord knows how alcoholic it was.
I’d already had a busy day, doing two scuba dives AND getting a haircut, so perhaps my resultant discombobulations were partly caused by my daytime exertions. Speaking of which, if anyone reading this is planning on visiting Placencia, I can recommend diving at Silk Caye – unlike many dive sites in Belize, this one’s far from the mainland or any large populated islands, right on the outer edge of the reef. As a result, it’s got some of the best diving and some of the healthiest coral in the country. And the dive shop I went with gives a 50% discount if you’re a local, or working as a local, which I am (although I don’t have any documents to prove it, so I had to show the owner both my passport and my employer’s website, which mentions my name and shows my photo!). The only hiccup in the dive was after lunch, when the divemaster’s dive computer (which looks like a large, fancy digital watch) went missing from the boat. The divemaster (whose name was Prince!) insisted that it had been ‘teefed’ (as they say in Creole), then turned the boat upside-down looking for it, accused his colleagues of teefing it, called the boss (during which conversation the cost of the computer went from $500 to $1500 – hmm, did someone say insurance?), and finally threw a hissy fit and refused to dive for the rest of the day! I joined another dive group and we left Prince (who by now was acting more like Princess) on the caye, picking him up (still sans computer) on the way back. Anyway, back to the wine…
We polished off the bottle on New Year’s Eve, before going out drinking (and before eating, which may have been a mistake). And we finished the lot in one sitting, which may also have been unwise. But I maintain that there’s something inherently wrong with cashew wine, regardless of when it’s drunk and/or the amount consumed. For a start, there’s the colour – rather than the delicate golden hue of a good Chardonnay, this had the dark yellow colour of the contents of a week-old chamberpot. It didn’t help that it was served from an old plastic water bottle with no top.
Then there was the smell – it had a synthetic quality to it, like an air freshener that has a pine or lemon smell added to it, and as a result smells nothing like real pine or lemon. It was reminiscent of parquet floor cleaner. In the words of Will Ferrell in the film Anchorman (when describing the fragrance Sex Panther), “It stings the nostrils. But in a good way.”
Finally, there was the taste – it was somewhere between a sweet cider and a syrupy sherry. With hints of cough medicine and aftershave. The first few glasses were bad enough, but by the end of the bottle it was nigh on impossible to drink – you had to hold your breath and just knock it back. Maybe it would’ve been better if we’d chilled it. Or drunk slightly less of it. Or not drunk it at all. Nothing was spoken as we silently battled our way through the pungent smell and cloying sweetness, turning to each other occasionally to see what grimace of disgust was frozen on our faces. Finally, it was finished, a black film of sediment being the only thing left in the bottle (either that, or someone had put their cigarette out in it). Then we left to eat and have something pleasant to drink.
Sadly, by then the damage was done, and lying in bed on New Year’s Day like a dead crab washed up on a beach (after having had a very enjoyable New Year’s Eve at the permanently popular Barefoot Bar), I regretted every drink I’d imbibed. But especially the cashew wine. Nauseous and vile-headed, I spent most of the day in bed. I know how Richard E. Grant’s character must’ve felt in the film Withnail and I, when he said, “I feel like a pig’s sh*t in my head.” I must’ve spent the first few hours just lying down in my own crapulence, bloated and full of escaping gas, like a faulty boiler. My tongue had been dragged repeatedly across a carpet until it had turned yellow, my body felt as though I’d been beaten up in the night, my eyeballs had been replaced with red-hot coals, and my brain had been filled with some impossibly heavy liquid, mercury perhaps. It took all my willpower to haul myself out of bed and drag myself to the bathroom, where, suddenly and without warning, there was a great thunderous sound like cannon fire. This immediately precipitated a bowel movement so explosive that it was more akin to an offensive in a war than to anything any human would do in peacetime. It was like the Charge of the Light Brigade. If Lord Cardigan had produced that at Balaclava, the Russians would’ve ran screaming. Never have I been so convinced that drinking is wrong. What I did in that bathroom certainly was. Eventually it ceased and, now not much more than an empty husk, I feebly had a shower and finished cleaning myself up. It took a bottle of Coke and half a bottle of Listerine to finally get the wine’s evil taste out of my mouth.
Clearly, some of the locals in Placencia had been enjoying the festivities too, as there was no sign of my guesthouse’s landlady, and most of the cafés and restaurants were closed – one of the few places that were open was run by a Muslim, so I guess he hadn’t been drinking. After taking forever to decide what to eat (due to having the mental capacity of a stapler), and even longer to eat it (due to my body being unable to generate any saliva), it was back to bed. I spent the rest of the day alternating between wishing I’d never drunk cashew wine, and wishing I was dead.
So that experience was enough of an incentive for me to never drink the foul stuff again (in fact, the only New Year’s resolution I’ve made in years is to never go near it again). Perhaps it’s my age, or maybe it was the general excess of the evening, or any of the other reasons above. But cashew wine is one Belizean experience I won’t be recommending to anyone.
Footnote – amazingly, the locals love cashew wine, and every year, in the Creole village of Crooked Tree, there’s a Cashew Festival, to celebrate the humble fruit (and nut). The locals sell everything cashew – not just nuts, juice and wine, but cashew jam, cashew cake, cashew cookies, cashew ice-cream, something called cashew slush, and, if the wine fermentation goes a bit wrong, cashew vinegar!