WINE & SPIRITS
FROM THE BOUNTIFUL MARULA HARVEST SPRINGS FORTH A LEGENDARY LIQUEUR
"Ma-RU-LA!" boomed the village storyteller, sister of the chief. "Ma-RUUU-La!" A group of African dancers, some two dozen strong, echoed the refrain then burst into frenzied dance. In white feather loincloths, they circled the campfire celebrating—as they do every year in the spring—the bountiful marula harvest. The yellow plum-sized fruit, which grows on sprawling umbrella trees, is like catnip for local elephants that flock to the region as the harvest begins.
The pachyderms lumber in from as far as 30 miles away and stay for as long as a month, feasting daily on the sweet ripening fruit. Backing their massive frames against the tree trunks, they release a marula avalanche, then eat all they can from the fruit carpet covering the ground. In spite of all those gorging elephants, there's still a bounty every year for humans to harvest—plenty left to transform after picking into South Africa's number-one homegrown cordial (and a popular export) Amarula Cream Liqueur.
I traveled south of the equator to learn all I could about this exotic libation—said to be a potent aphrodisiac. The journey took me to a village in the heart of marula territory where the local chief played host one evening—after song and dance—to a harvest feast. The dinner began with cobalt-blue mopani worms, a local delicacy—tree caterpillars, actually—that had been lightly fried in butter and garlic. As I grappled with their rather unusual texture, the distinguished chief, who was considering adding another wife to his entourage, by the way, looked me up and down as a possible candidate. Then he launched into an explanation of just how sacred the marula tree is to the people of the Limpopo region and to all the lore surrounding it. "There are male and female trees," he said in his sexy, baritone voice. "Only the female produces fruit. If you are married under a female tree your marriage will last forever." The chief went on to describe the role the trees play in gender selection during pregnancy. "Tea made from the bark of a male tree will produce a boy child," he said. "Female tree tea will give you a girl."
South Africa's Limpopo province, in the far northeast of the country, subsists largely on the marula fruit's economic might. The harvest employs some 60,000 pickers, who deliver the fruit for processing into liqueur (Distell, the South African company that produces Amarula Cream Liqueur, helps further bolster the local economy by also employing tribesmen and women in the off-season for construction and conservation projects). After the harvest, pickers sort and clean the fruit to prepare it for transport south to Stellenbosch, the scenic mountain town nestled in the Cape wine region. There, the marula juice is fermented and then aged for two years in small oak barrels, in an unusual and innovative step for a cream liqueur (no others are aged in oak) that gives the final product a fuller texture and earthy depth. Before bottling, cream is added to the mix.
With our wormy starter and the glorious African feast that followed, we drank Amarula in a variety of ways—straight, on ice, in a tropical colada and mixed into coffee. My favorite, though, was simply poured over crushed ice. Amarula has a richer and more complex character than other cream liqueurs—with an intriguing undertone of sweet melon and stone fruit—that needs no masking with mixers. Although I began to feel the liqueur working its amorous magic, I decided not to test its powers with our strapping tribal host—lest I wind up as wife number 10, and for life, assuming we were married under the marula tree.
Amarula has been in the United States for some time, but it's just beginning to really gain traction with American drinkers, riding the general wave of popularity of cream liqueurs (a cordial category that's surging, thanks mostly to the same eager young drinkers who made Jägermeister such an ongoing hit).
As I finished up my Amarula immersion on an elephant safari-riding atop Sebeqwa, the very elephant pictured on the liqueur's iconic label—I began to have visions of sipping iced Amarula poolside along the Sound. I would finally test out its amorous properties, mixing up creamy cocktails for my summer suitors. And if all went as advertised, Amarula—the next Bailey's, if Distell has their way—would deliver back home the real treat: my long-awaited summer of love.