An Ode to Matango

What follows is a small photo essay devoted to one of the truly great natural resources of W. Africa: palm wine. Known locally as matango or “African champagne” it is most often the product of the oil palm (Elaeis guineense) in the southwest of Cameroon. Elsewhere, as in the northwest, Raffia is more common which produces a distinctly different flavor and bouquet. It is often available at roadside shacks in an adulterated, watered-down form (all the better for contracting amoebas and/or typhoid, I was cautioned by a visiting Peace Corps medical officer) but every Cameroonian knows that the very finest palm wine comes straight from the tree. Unprocessed and unfiltered, the genuine product usually contains small bits of organic matter and sediment from the tree. Through the miracle of natural fermentation, the sugars in the wet pulp of the palm trunk are converted into a mildly alcoholic, lightly carbonated “wine” that is collected into a container (a gourd or plastic bottle) via a funnel often made from a banana leaf lashed to the carved top of a felled tree. When this method is used, a fire is often made at the base of the tree to hasten production of the sap. The tree may also be climbed and tapped at its crown, producing so-called “up” wine. After it has been tapped, a single palm may produce wine for several days or weeks and in quantities of 20-100 liters or more, depending on its size. It is best taken fresh from the tree when it is sweetest; storing it for any period rapidly increases the alcohol content and diminishes its flavor. Refrigeration is of course possible but thereafter it is no longer considered to be in its “natural” state.

Milky white in color and opaque, its flavor is complex, varied and the subject of much debate among its connoisseurs. No batch of palm wine is quite like any other. The same conditions that shape the product of a vineyard—age and variety of the vine, seasonal variations in climate, rainfall, soil content, and so on—similarly dictate the output of the palm tree. Two palm groves may produce vintages as distinct as a Chilean Carmenère is to an Italian Lambrusco, or a Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir is to a Spanish Mourvèdre.

But I digress. Hans, who is seldom given to hyperbole, invited me on a secretive “special occasion” somewhere in the vicinity of Small Soppo. He remained vague on the precise nature and location of our afternoon activity, but placing my unswerving trust in his judgment I followed him straight into the dense bush that begins just off the tarred road to the west of Bakweri Town. We negotiated a hilly, twisting path (where I suspect few, if any, white men had been recently) for the better part of an hour until we finally arrived at a large, whitewashed house set on a leveled plot in a broad forest clearing. There we met our hosts who took us on a short hike down a much smaller trail into the heart of the bush. With the sun slipping fast below the shoulder of Mt. Cameroon, we reached the palm grove. Back at the house with our prize, we pulled chairs into a circle outdoors and the palm wine flowed freely. The photos below tell the rest of the story.

An Ode to Matango