It is 4am on a cool February morning outside of Limpopo, South Africa in the northernmost province outside of Phalaborwa, quite near Kruger National Park. Women of the local villages around Limpopo are readying themselves for day that lies ahead. It is summer in South Africa and the only way to get through hot summer days is to get an early start, and there is work to do.
From January to March in this part of South Africa hundreds of villagers, predominantly women, set out to do the work that will pay for their livelihood for the rest of the year – harvesting the bright yellow marula fruit to make the silky, luxurious Amarula Cream Liqueur.
Over the next few weeks these women, many with babies strapped to their backs, will pile hundreds and hundreds of pounds of marula fruit into baskets to be sold at the Amarula Lapa in Limpopo. Earning just 22 Rand/$3 (the pre-established rate for this year made with the village heads) for a 50 kilogram bag, these women will likely fill 250-300 bags of marula fruit during harvest. This would equal about $900 in the US, but it is enough to sustain them. It is hard work, but good work, and this year the harvest has come in with a fever, producing a much higher yield than normal.
Fruit from this tree, also known as the “elephant tree” and the “fertility tree” is said to have aphrodisiac properties, and is a favorite among the gentlest giant of the African big five, as elephants have a special weakness for the ripe fruit. Harvest can be challenging, as fruit is only harvested after it has fallen from the trees to the ground, and the elephants and other local wild life have eaten their share. It is also tiring, as women will work the harvest and then walk many miles with 50 kg bags of bright yellow marula fruit carried in baskets or sacks on their head to the processing plant to deposit and receive payment. Many with do this several times during harvest.
To taste the marula fruit it is hard to imagine the end result of Amarula Cream is silky vanilla, berry and spice flavors, as the marula fruit in its pure form is quite tart. With an acidity level 4-6 times that of an orange the ripe marula aroma is almost like ripe pears and passion fruit, with flavors that are quite similar and very tangy.
Unlike most wines and spirits, Amarula is created in two distinctly different places. Harvest and processing occurs in Limpopo where the fruit is gathered, washed then pressed and processed removing the inner stone of seeds and leaving the pulp, which is then transported to Stellenbosch where the fermentation and distillation occurs.
Once processing starts the fruit is on a time crunch, as no stabilizers are used on the fruit; it is transported in this pure fruit pulp form which has been cooled and sent in temperature controlled trucks going back and forth from Limopopo to Stellenbosch, about a days drive away. Once in Stellenbosch fermentation begins, first making marula wine from the pressed fruit pulp by adding a bit of yeast, which is also left on its skins through fermentation, which can last up to 10 days. After fermentation the wine goes to column stills where the wine is turned into a spirit going in at 10% alcohol and coming out at 30%. After which it is sent through a 2nd distillation in copper pots, originally used by producer Distell for cognac, now making a marula fruit spirit with about 70% alcohol. From there the stable spirit is aged in 12+ year old barrels for 2 years, adding depth, subtle flavors and intensity to the spirit. After barrel aging the spirit is blended will whole milk cream and Amarula Cream is born, with a subtle 17% alcohol level.
The end result creates balanced, sweet and silky flavors which are best tasted straight up or with a bit of ice, filled with chocolate, nuts and spice flavors. Unlike many cream liqueurs this starts with a wine base, making the overall flavor and finish subtle and elegant with out a whisky bite on the end. Add in an amazing story of the fruit and the tie with the land, and it is the perfect pre or post-dinner spirit.