Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Exhausted in Hanoi

 This is a reprint of an AbsoluteTrygve blog post from 2009.
I don’t know how these corporate travelers do it. All these flights just kill me. It must be easier if you zip from 5 star to 5 star. But that’s not how I work. After 2 days in Malaysia, and 4 days in Thailand again, it was 3 days in Hanoi, Vietnam.

I went to have a look and a visit with our Vietnamese distiller, who is perhaps Vietnamese in his heart, but French in his distillations. We have been waiting for some months for this entire order to be assembled and ready, and here we are!

Lolo does herbs, and water/steam distillations, and now some alcohol extractions; no absolutes. He and his partner and his partner’s family now have a farm a few hours south of Hanoi, along the Ho Chi Min trail; the trail the North used to supply the South during the American war in the 1960s and 70s.

Although this farm is not certified organic, all farming is not only organically done but done by hand, except perhaps the initial plowing to turn the earth to ready it for sowing. Otherwise all is done with human and buffalo.
Ambrette around water

I had a chance to see fantastic soft and sweet Artemisia, and a whole forest of spicy shiso (Perilla.) Growing nearby is palmarosa, patchouli, verbena basil (Ocimum basilicum v Verbenum,) which is really fresh and verbena like, nothing like lemon basil. I’ve even got a little oil coming from just the flowering tops. It’s difficult to find someone who cares enough to do this sort of harvest: just the flowering tops. I can count these distillers on one hand. Additionally, there are several kinds of herbs that grow mostly for culinary purposes, (one just to serve with dog meat!!!!) and these are all being distilled too. Growing around a pond we find ambrette, and a really delicious little white flower no one knows the name of, that’s found in the forest, and apparently very slow growing. After 10 years you can still put your fingers around the trunk so this is not really a sustainable thing to make. It’s too bad because Lolo has made some alcohol maceration with it and all I can say is Holy Hell. You could rule the world with an oil of that! But we will have to content ourselves with the alcohol…..It’s a fruity flowery little happy sweet one but useless to try and describe at this point.

We drove quite a long time for this, but fortunately I wasn’t driving so I could ignore the terrifying Vietnamese driving habits. I never once saw a person look before they pulled out on to the road on their scooter, which was always precariously balanced with at least two people, and often many kilos of lumber, fodder, flowers, gas (!), or huge bales of something.

One thing about Vietnam, the Vietnamese are so completely industrious. Unlike Laos, for example, where you rarely see even small cultivated areas, in Vietnam it’s continual. It seems there is not one square metre of land that does not do its part to ensure the prosperous future of the Socialist republic of Vietnam. Rice, Bananas. Papayas, Coconuts. And more. The shimmering green rice paddies are the trademark of this country, with people in those excellently designed conical hats bent over toiling in ankle deep water. It’s actually a horrifying way to make your living. Just imagine bending over like that for an hour, never mind day after day, sunrise to sundown. And in the sun. And when the rice is harvested that’s not all. Then you’ve got the winnowing, And it goes on and on. Of all the things to automate, this is one the things that actually should be, I think. But our priorities lie elsewhere.

Land is usually worked with the help of a buffalo. I don’t think I saw a single tractor but I do imagine villages own them collectively. I did see plenty of buffalo wallowing though, That’s always something nice to see: the happy buffalo sink into the mud like heaven, nostrils flaring and eyes rolling. I think, although I may be wrong, that buffalos are one of the only creatures who actually respect women more than men. I have seen buffalos go after men (especially western men) who dared to speak to them. Even Lolo was insulted as we walked past the lovely creature in the mud. But 6 year old girls can boss them around without question. Even I elicited no response from her as I followed Lolo about.

We had a wonderful lunch on the farm, with plenty of vegetarian food for us, and Lolo got his boiled pigs feet, which he apparently looks forward to for months at a time. The huge black spider perched above us eats the mosquitoes, but there are plenty of other, more venomous creatures about, like the nearly foot long centipedes, or maybe they’re millipedes, but they are the reason you should wear big heavy gloves as you stick your hand in places you can’t see. They are even used as their own anti-venom. Somehow they are caught and stuffed into bottles of alcohol, which is then left to macerate, and should you be stung by one of these very scary indeed creatures, then you can apply millipede alcohol as soon as possible to the bite. Perhaps then you will not die. Fortunately we talked more about flowers and herbs.


Basil Verbena
Too bad for us there was no distillation to photograph on the day we were there. It had rained the night before; good for the basil, but not for distillation. But no matter, I have seen plenty of Lolos distillations before. I know he takes a lot of care of and treats every plant as it’s own unique being, getting to know and understand their personalities. He was the first one I know to distill the fresh ginger, and fresh anise. Both of those oils are usually found dried and from China, which probably partly explains why they are not the oils uppermost on people’s mind when they come to Enfleurage. But smelling either of these when distilled fresh and from Vietnam…..well, it becomes another story. Then they become magnificent, desirable essential oils, unlocking creativity and inspiring people to try new blends.

The next day I went to see Lolo at his house, which is also his lab. In the past he has been well known for his liquors made from local fruits: Guava, Passion Fruit, Apricot, Raspberry, Green lemon and the like, but this time the emphasis was more on the essential oils, so I ordered fantastic new oils for the store: One of these is Turmeric, Curcuma. This staple of Indian cooking is sometimes found as an essential oil. It’s not too common, but Lolo had an idea about this particular Curcuma, from a particular guy, and a particular place and it was supposed to be so special we waited for months for it. Well, it is amazing, absolutely delicious and divine, deep earthy, robustly orange and very complex. I also ordered Black pepper, something we always have, and this time also white pepper.

I don’t even know what to say about white pepper, except that it is one of those spices who changes incredibly. My father used to cook with white pepper in the dish, black pepper on the dish, and so I do too. It always smells so different in the jar when I use it but adds a lively sharp excitement to the dish and here as an essential oil it’s the same. Smelled in the bottle, I didn’t even recognize him, but when I tried one of Lolos blends with white pepper featured he was thrilling and unmistakable. Hard to describe now as I’m on a plane.

I’ve got fresh new Litsea Cubeba, distilled from fruits, always an excellent and refreshing oil, and a tiny bit of a new distillation, this time done with the flowers. Shiso leaf is also waiting for his trip to America, as is an incredibly delightful, mouth watering, and utterly complete Cilantro. We have more fresh ginger coming, and the incredible and missing in action for so long lymnophillia, which some people call gingergrass, but this is apparently incorrect.
A lemony note is continuing here, as we’ve got Melissa coming back, and also a really nice and exceptionally sweet and refined Citronella, believe it or not.

There are a few more oils, none of which I can remember the names of at the moment which is no matter. I will get them later and write a newsletter when they come in. They are all wild from Indochina and there are 4 besides the white pepper. I think we might only have the Vietnamese names anyway…

Vietnam, as always, is a challenging place to be, but I got to eat my favorite dish, Cha Ca, which is probably not spelled right. It’s a Hanoi specialty, of small pieces of fried fish, cold noodles, peanuts, and fresh herbs, which seem to vary from place to place although for sure someone will write to me and say which herbs precisely are the ones used to make correct and traditional Cha ca, but they seem like basil, dill, cilantro, and the like, but not exactly these as we know them, but something very like them. I do love my Cha Ca. I even ate a dish of it in the taxi on the way to the airport!

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