Thursday, May 06, 2010

May 5, 2010 - St. Pierre, Martinique

Anchoring under Mt. Pelee

Back in 1902, this town was the bomb. Actually, it was "the pearl." That's what they called it - The Pearl of the West Indies. For 250 years the French had been building churches and theaters and distilleries in St. Pierre. By 1902, there were 30,000 people living here. It was the biggest city in the West Indies. And then the mountain that lurks over the town blew its top. Every single person in town was killed, except for one very lucky prisoner whose tomb-like jail cell protected him from the worst of the lava and ash.

Today, only 6,000 people live in St. Pierre. There is still a church and a distillery, but the theater has not been rebuilt. We spent a morning walking around town, visiting the ruins and the museum. These days St. Pierre is an atmospheric little town, with many houses sharing walls with ruins from the eruption.

During the hottest part of the day we hid out on the boat. Then late in the afternoon we returned to shore to walk up to Depaz. According to our cruising guide, the walk up to the distillery is 30 minutes. We got a little lost, stumbling across a few more ruins before we found the road up to the distillery (Rue Schoeler), and so it took us 45 minutes of walking up hill before we reached it.

There wasn't anybody at the entrance desk, or any brochures in English, so I grabbed one in German and we wandered off to check out the works. We checked out the paddle wheel that used to power the plant, which has long since been replaced by a steam engine. We waded through the chaff from the crushed cane. We enjoyed a glass of fresh cane juice while we checked out the stainless steel tanks used for fermenting the juice. We admired the copper still pot where the mildly boozy fermented juice is turned into something much more potent.

We peeked into the cask room, where rhum vieux ages in old whisky and bourbon barrels until it is time to be bottled. And lastly, we wandered through the gift shop. But with memories of that awful hike from the Mount Gay bottling plant fresh in our minds, we decided not to purchase anything at this distillery. Somehow, distilleries are not as charming as vineyards. I know fermentation is at the heart of it all, but the very industrial evaporation process takes a bit of the magic out of it.

When clear white rum emerges from the still pot, it is 70% abv. It is cut a little bit before it is bottled, but the grocery shelves here in Martinique are stocked with plenty of bottles of 50%, 55% and even 60% abv rhum agricole (rum made from sugar cane juice, as apposed to rum made from molasses, which is common on most other islands). And the folks in Barbados thought they were happy!

Crazy Tree

Some of the rum produced and sold here in Martinique is aged, but most of the local consumption seems to be rhum blanc, which is herby and floral, like a really good blanco tequila or cachaca. And the favorite way to drink it in Martinique is in a T-Punch.

The first time we sat down at a restaurant here and ordered a cocktails, Sten ordered a Planter's Punch and I ordered the T-Punch. Sten's cocktail came out as expected - rum and juice served together in a glass. But my drink arrived as a work in progress. The waiter set out a glass, a wedge of lime, some raw sugar, and a bottle before me. Then he left, leaving the quantity and proportions completely up to me. I stole half of the ice from Sten's glass, then it was off to the races.

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