Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Jamaica 2016 Day 5. Accompong

I decided I didn’t want to stay in Black River after all. The accommodations were substantially subpar, and the town itself didn’t seem to offer enough in terms of sightseeing or entertainment. So I headed back into the mountains, with the goal of visiting the Appleton Rum Estate. It was a pretty ride, and the estate itself is well kept and attractive. I signed up for the tour, and for starters was offered a chill rum punch while my guide was called in. The congenial young man took me on a walk through the visitor grounds, where memorabilia from older times is collected to show the visitor how rum was made. The distillery was established in 1749, as the center piece of 1500 acres of sugar cane fields, nestled in Siloah Valley, a karstic valley surrounded by ridges of limestone, which affords it unique protection from hurricanes. The sugar cane used to be pressed in trapiches, where a donkey would provide the needed mechanical power to roll the cane and extract the juice. Now of course it is done by chopping the cane and using industrial presses. In times of old the leftovers were used to feed the donkeys, but now they are use to fuel the waste to energy plant that powers the whole operation. Once the cane juice is extracted, it is progressively boiled into a mixture of molasses and sugar crystals. The sugar is separated with a centrifuge, and the molasses are mixed with water and yeast to ferment into a kind of “beer” with 4% alcohol. This “beer” is then distilled in several steps until the clear liquid reaches a 60% or more alcohol level.

The young rum is placed in oak barrels to age, and in the warm climate of Jamaica it ages four times faster than in cooler climates. During the day, as the barrel warms up, the fluid expands and is forced into the pores of the wood; some of it necessarily evaporates, keeping the rum from overheating, and the fraction that is lost is variously referred as “The angels’ share” or “the Devil’s cut”, depending on your inclinations. During the night the rum cools down and is pulled into the barrel, thus allowing the wood to breath.

After 3 years the rum develops a slight yellow tint, from the tannins in the barrel. At this point some of the rum is pulled out, filtered, and sold as the white rum that some prefer for mixing. The rest of the rum is allowed to keep ageing, taking more and more of an amber color as the years go by. Some rum can be aged up to 50 years! The brew master then uses up to 20 different batches of rum of several ages, to mix a consistent product that is then bottled as 15-year, 20-year, or 30-year rum (meaning that a good portion of the mix is up to 30 years old in the case of the latter).

Much of this I learned at the end of the tour, when you are brought to the bar and parked in front of a row of different rums, given a stack of thimble sized cups, and are encouraged to try as much and as many of the different rums. What a delightful learning experience!

From there I headed farther up the mountain, to the village of Accompong, one of four independent Maroon “nations” within Jamaica. It was a hell of a climb for my poor scooter, but I finally made it and was promptly greeted by a representative of the Colonel (the elected authority), who collected my visitor fee of US$ 20 and the proceeded to walk with me through the village, showing me the key places (for example, the Harida Tree where town meetings and festivals are held), and telling me about their history.

It turns out that the Spaniards had a good 150 years to import slaves into Jamaica, many from the Congo region, and when the British took over the island in 1655 these slaves retreated to the inaccessible mountains and from there fought a guerilla warfare against the Brits. The great Maroon leader, Cudjoe, is remembered as one of their heroes. Finally, in 1739, Cudjoe signed a peace treaty with the British and the new Maroon nation was granted 1,500 acres where they would be able to live, free and independent from the Jamaican government in perpetuity in exchange for a permanent peace.

It is interesting that, to this day, the Maroon nations retain great autonomy. They do not pay property taxes, elect their own leaders, run their own schools, and generally manage their own affairs. They don’t have a public source of water supply, so they collect rain from their roofs and store it in big barrels or cisterns. On the not so great side they have no representation with the Jamaican government and must handle their own public works. I did notice they have metered electrical power and two cell towers, but my guide tells me that they have to maintain their roads in a piecemeal fashion (not very good maintenance from what I can see). They can apply for government grants, but the process is very slow, and the last successful grant was given over 25 years ago.

My guide’s name is Mark Wright, and all the other people I met have English names. The practice arose from the slavery practice of giving the slaves the same family name as their owner, but it is not clear to me how it entered into the Maroon nation (they are not named Rodriguez or Perez). Mark is a really nice chatty guy, who doubles as the native doctor with knowledge of herbal medicine. The town also has a clinic with a full time nurse, and where a doctor comes from time to time, again an anomaly in the workings of this nation.

Mark arranged for my evening meal, which consisted of bread fruit, ackee with onions and tomatoes, and salted cod fish. It was very good, strongly reminiscent of “slave food”. Bread fruit was a welcome surprise: The Brits imported it from the South Pacific, and it grows in profusion in the humid climate of Jamaica. It is a tall tree, from which a green bumpy fruit the size of a cantaloupe hangs. They pluck the fruit and bake it by simply putting it on a small fire, rotating it from time to time, until the outer layer is turned into charcoal. Then they scrape the crust, cut the fruit, toss away the seeds in the center, and presto, you have a doughy bread in the shape of cantaloupes slices. I made friends with little Alguer, a 6 year old boy that was supper friendly, and he ended eating from my plate slices of bread fruit topped with the mix of ackee fruit and salt fish. Great fun!

I ended spending the night in Accompong, in a sultry room without bathroom. I was also invited to the birthday celebration of Mark’s 14-year old son. The party was a village affair, with lots of loud music, and did not actually get going until I was ready to go to bed. I stayed for the singing of Happy Birthday and the cutting of the colorful and huge cake. The main eating of chicken stew came later, and by that time I was already in bed.

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