I was Deep in the Venezuelan Rainforest, Trying Drinks You’ve Never Even Dreamed Of (Part 2)
David Piper on distilling Scorpion’s Tail in the jungle and why butterflies are surprisingly dirty
Richard Brandon Cox
On the first day of our trip to the Venezuelan rainforest in search of totally new plant flavours Romulo, the chief of Yekwa’ana tribe we were staying with, and Lorenzo, the shaman, sat down with us to describe what we might find.
Beyond identifying sweet and bitter, flavour wasn’t discussed much. This despite Charles, the septuagenarian explorer who accompanied us having told them that aroma and flavour were what we were looking for. Lesley, our master distiller, asked about one plant, “What does it taste like?” They didn’t seem to understand the question. After a minute of puzzlement and discussion between them they replied as if we were simple: “It tastes like itself.” They don’t have a vocabulary—or the desire—to describe taste in any other terms than what it is.
How would you describe the flavour of a cucumber to someone who had never tried one? Green? Fresh? Cool? Bright? A bit like a melon but less sweet? Language has always struggled with taste and scent. It does a terrible job of conveying the fullness of the experience. Taste and scent are instinctive tools for survival; which carry huge amounts of information, on a level far deeper than logic and rationality. They are linked to memory and emotion: to fluid feeling rather than rigid thought and definitions.
The Yekwa’ana are incredibly attuned to this – their lives depend on it. I always feel we struggle to define flavours. We are only able to compare them with the flavours of other things. We lose sight of the immense, soul-filling pleasure of where the senses of taste and smell can take us – to thoughts and feelings of things far distant, yet deep inside us. The strong link to imagination is blocked by our need to use words to capture and reduce. Metaphor and poetry might be our only hope.
By day six of the expedition we had a large collection of samples distilled on a rather jerry-rigged set-up (a ten-litre copper still, string, buckets, hoses, the camp cook’s gas stove, an empty glass to collect the distillate). They all tasted fascinating, and totally different to anything we’d ever had before.
Then, we stumbled across a bush known in Spanish as Rabo de Alacran (Scorpion’s Tail) from the curled pointy tips of the stems. From the smell of the first handful of crushed leaves and flowers, Lesley’s nose pricked up. Despite everything I’ve said about words, I’ll have a crude go: it was bright and green (almost a bit melon/cucumbery), but with a little grassiness. It had something floral, there was a touch of spice (peppery and aromatic, but with more of the former), and also something else, deeper and more distant – maybe the word zesty comes close. The Yekwa’ana use it as protection against evil, and for all sorts of medicinal purposes.
The extract in alcohol kept the full range of these sensations, and they carried over even stronger in the distillation. Lesley was very happy. She often describes flavour as a shape, and this was an entirely new geometry, stretching her palate as it shifted in playful delight.
Scorpion’s Tail grows all around the Caribbean. It’s common in Florida, where it’s popular with butterflies. When we learnt that, we were more than a little crestfallen (although remembering the butterflies, the clouds of huge, bright, movement that we saw on the little beaches of the river, always brings a smile to my face. Beforehand, I had read about a species that liked to land on humans and lick them, for the salt. Half-cute, half-disgusting. One day, approaching the little beach where we would wash, I saw one of the massive swarms there. Would they surround me and tickle me and transport me to another dimension of butterfly lightness and electric colour?
As I approached, they began to disperse, these beautiful, ethereal, precious angels, until I got closer and closer and there were only a few left, still attracted to something on the sand. I was barely a metre away when the last one flitted off, and I could see what they were gathered around. A dog shit.)I later visited the Botanical Gardens in Amsterdam, and the head botanist there told me they had a couple of the plants – would I like to see them? Grudgingly, I followed him through the greenhouse to a distant cousin of our beloved bush. It was rough, crude, and leathery. The flowers were a different colour – and it had no smell or taste at all. “Oh, you must have found the other type, there are two types of Scorpion’s Tail, here’s the other one.” Again, not the same. We think we either found a new variety, or that all the flavour came from the local conditions, the climate and the soil. Or both.
Read Part One here, where David introduces ice to the Yekwa’ana tribe and discovers a plant called Wild Pig’s Piss tastes exactly how you think.