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Oct 02, 2022
In many parts of the Republic of Congo, palm wine has been an important part of traditional ceremonies and gatherings. In some regions such as Owando, where it’s made, palm wine is consumed daily by farmers, fishers and locals — often in the mid-morning as part of social gatherings in ngandas (pubs), but also after work.
It’s an artful process to make this milky white sugary beverage, known locally as ntsam-ntsam, and then to transport it to cities like Brazzaville, about 500 km away. But it’s worth it. Palm wine is believed to contain a variety of nutrients, says Mr. Ayessa, a local vintner who specializes in ntsam-ntsam production. These include antioxidants and probiotics.
“Every winemaker has a specific way of making their palm wine,” Ayessa explains. Once the sap ferments and the resulting wine is collected from the tree, other ingredients are added. “This will determine whether your palm wine is sweet or sour,” Ayessa says.
In today’s Daily Dose, we travel with Ayessa to a village near Owando to see the process of palm wine harvesting.
— by Victoire Douniama in Owando and Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo
In a village 10 km from Owando, Ayessa gets ready to sharpen two knives that will enable him to cut through the extremely thick, tough bark of the date palm tree. Sharp knives are crucial to the tapping process. Knives are kept sharp by rubbing them with stones.
Before heading into the forest, Ayessa ties two collection bottles onto a bamboo branch. This will allow him to easily transport the bottles to the date palm trees, where the wine is collected.
Ayessa chooses a palm tree and removes the debris and leaves. When the area is cleared, he begins cutting into the trunk of the tree.
The harvesting process takes three days in total. First, a triangle-shaped hole is cut into the trunk and left open for two days. On the third day, a second hole is cut underneath the first hole.
A V-shaped cut is made inside the second hole. A leaf is placed inside this notch to catch the sap once it starts running from the tree. The bottom part of the leaf is inserted into a collection bottle.
As the palm sap leaves the tree, it is naturally fermented by yeast in the air and also by leftover yeast in the collection bottle. Within a few hours, the fermented sap turns into wine with a fairly low alcohol content. If the wine is left to continue fermenting, it will become more sour, eventually turning into vinegar.
The collection bottle is tied to the tree, then large leaves are placed over the opening of the bottle to prevent dirt and rain from getting inside. “Some trees can fill up 10 liters of wine while other trees might only fill about one,” Ayessa explains. “This is totally dependent on the tree. So I never know how much palm wine I will get from a specific tree.”
Winemakers don’t worry about the collection jugs being stolen. Not only is it frowned upon in the close-knit village but there is belief among some residents that thieves will face punishment, usually in the form of a curse or spell.
Ayessa heads back to the village with an empty collection bottle. He typically ventures deeper into the forest to seek out the best palms. During my visit we stayed closer to the village and tapped one tree.
On the third day the bottles are collected and brought back to the village, where Ayessa’s wife boils the wine. Boiling eliminates bacteria, stops the fermentation process and also reduces the alcohol content. This is the point where winemakers mix in their own flavors. “I also add a special ingredient that makes my palm wine sweet,” Ayessa says.
Palm wine can be consumed warm or cold. After boiling the wine, Ayessa pours it from one cup to another to cool it for drinking. Palm wine is a very popular drink in Owando, but only the best winemakers, who have signature methods and flavors, can sell their ntsam-ntsamfor a good profit.
Vendors buy the palm wine from the vintners and transport it by bus or car to sell in larger communities, such as Brazzavile, hundreds of kilometers away.
In Brazzaville, the wine is served in colorful ceramic cups similar to those used by Ayessa to cool the wine. One cup of ntsam-ntsam costs about 150 FCFA (US$0.23), which is cheaper than a regular beer, making it a popular choice.
What is your favorite beverage to sip on holiday? Share your destination with us and we may cover it next.
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