Sunday, March 02, 2008

From Sugar to Moonshine: Getting a Buzz in Hortelao

“I was raised in grogue,” Budinho says as smoke billows from the lambique—distillery—behind him. Bubbles of Cape Verde’s historic moonshine shimmer in the coconut shell he has poured with confident strokes to check the quality. “This stuff is ready. It’s not too strong, not too bland. Have a sip.” As I let the camera face the ground, and take the shell to my mouth, I wonder what “too strong” could possibly taste like.
But grogue wasn’t always “forte”. Here in Hortelão, one of Santiago island’s more fertile valleys, grogue began as idyllic fields of sugar cane. After months of watering, the tall stalks bloomed feathery flowers, locals took machetes to their fields and grogue making season began in earnest.
In January, when I visited, bundles of cane balanced on the heads of women and children were already making their way to the trapiches. These oxen-or motor-powered machines crush the stalks to extract sweet cane juice. “A lot of people think it’s too expensive to use oxen, but some still do,” Budinho explains. When we can’t find a traditional one in action, he good-naturedly demonstrates the monotonous circular trek of the oxen as they crush the cane. “Its tiring,” he says. “And they work all night.”
After the trapiche, the cane juice is placed in barrels to ferment into an unappetizing beige liquid. After a few days, the liquid is poured into a tremendous stone caldron, the lambique. A fire lit below heats the liquid until it evaporates and passes through a tube. The tube enters a vat of cold water that converts the gas back into liquid, that is, into a clean, incredibly potent alcohol, that was first called “grogue” by English sailors some 500 years ago.
‘Its about getting a good buzz and drinking a little,” Budinho says. “You drink too much, your head spins and you fall.” Laughing, he demonstrates the motions that are not uncommon sights at the corner bars that dot towns across Cape Verde.
That good buzz depends on an ever-scarcer Cape Verdian resource: water. From cane irrigation, to lambique operation, water is an essential ingredient. With poor rainfall and salt water flooding the aquiver, access to this vital substance is increasingly threatened. “The majority of grogue is water,” Budinho says. “If you have more water, and the water is good quality, you will have more grogue and it will be high quality….If water is lacking, nothing goes well.”


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