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The promises and pitfalls of Karoo agave

The key narrative around Karoo agave is one of exultant enterpreneurship that is burnt and trashed by harsh realities… here’s a great essay on the subject…

It’s a tale as old as time. An enticing creature of the sea seduces men with lyrical promises of rapture, knowledge or power, usually leading them to catastrophe.

The temptress I’m talking about is agave, a large plant with sharp, sword-like leaves that looks much like an aloe.

That may not sound very sexy, but secreted away at the heart of this strange yet alluring plant is a trove of carbohydrates that can be alchemised into the spirits of Tequila and Mescal – beloved intoxicants that, aptly, come with a bite. 

Now, if you thought said succulent, was native to Mexico, you’d be right, but – as I discovered on a recent road trip across the country – agave not only magically found its way across the ocean, but naturalised on our shores. 

It now not only litters our hills and roadsides, but is actively cultivated by romantics like Tim Murray at Roode Bloem, his family farm just outside Graaff-Reinet. Murray’s interest is indeed in agave spirits, yet this is not its only attraction.

“This is a marvellous plant, a veritable Mexican supermarket. The Aztecs and Mayans used it for countless purposes, from making musical instruments to structural fibre to building materials.

“One of the Mexican tricks is to take a leaf and [strip it] with the thorns still on, and then you end up with a needle and thread. I actually have a lady in Cape Town now who wants to use the thread to make weaves, instead of plastic!” Murray enthuses.

“It’s antiseptic as well as aseptic, so if you had a cut, you could peel the membrane off and use it as a Band-Aid, and you could use it as old-style cling wrap to keep your food fresh and uncontaminated. You could also eat the heart – the fruit – and drink the inside juices,” he continues.

These ancient people even went so far as to create a sort of beer from the fermented sap, called pulque.

Spectacular challenges

Piñas arriving at Schoonspruit Distillers in Ventersdorp.

With so many wondrous applications, why have I painted agave out to be a vixen? Well, simply because so many who have tried to capitalise on agave spirits have failed spectacularly. 

This is largely due to a lack of appreciation for the incredible patience, resourcefulness, skills and sheer determination required to process the plant. 

For starters, it takes anything from 10 to 25 years for it to reach maturity. If left untouched, agave spends the energy stored in its core to push up a single, mast-like stem tipped with flowers. This birthing process exhausts the plant; soon afterwards, it perishes, and its stem comes crashing down. 

Naturally, spirit seekers like Murray who are beguiled by the treasure must salvage it before the plant blossoms. However, agave doesn’t part with her hoard easily. An enormous amount of manpower is required to wrestle it from the ground, hack away the toothed foliage and then physically lift and transport the heavy centre – or piña – which weighs in at 35 to 90kg. 

… And that’s just the beginning. The pinã still needs to be cooked, ground, fermented and distilled to create agave spirits.

Indeed, Murray may well be the only man in the land who – at the risk of mixing mythologies – has flown close to the sun without plummeting to his doom. His ancestors, though, have certainly had their fair share of ups and downs…..

DailyMaverick.co.za: Read the full story HERE

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