Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Georgetown, Guyana and Tbilisi, Georgia

At first glance, there is little in common between these two wonderful, yet disparate places. Each location offers tourists and visitors a unique and memorable experience; each conjures up quizzical looks when announced as destinations, and each if often confused with a better known, but eponymous location.

The Georgia to which I refer lies in the western end of the Caucuses; a spit of land separating Russia to the north from Turkey and Iran in the south; it is land that has seen its fair share and more of conquest, invasion and occupation, but now revels in its independence, and shift to the mainstream of nations in both and economic and political sense.

It does, however, get terribly confused with the American state of the same name.

Georgetown, for this piece, refers to the capital of Guyana; the most western of the three Guyanas, and a most delightful and interesting city. It is a city of intrigue, wonderful architecture, rather obscure and enchanting museums and a hotbed of social and political activity.

It is neither a suburb of Washington DC, nor the capital of the Malay island of Penang.

I make this rather obtuse point because each country manufactures and exports, and it is perhaps the relative unfamiliarity of each place that places a distinct and rather iniquitous burden upon manufacturers, and makes selling their products in a broader market so difficult.

ALthough this will come as a ssurprise to many, rice is exported from Guyana. Its rice industry is interesting, operates below capacity and offers tremendous growth opportunities; the main commercial variety grown in Guyana is the Rustic, an extra-long grain product that has found much favour in its traditional markets. As tastes change, so do rice fashions, and the newly emerging markets are seeking shorter varieties of rice, and research continues. It is interesting to note that for the newer markets, particularly in Latin America, paddy (unprocessed rice) is exported, thus denying the Georgetown economy the benefits of the value-added conversion of paddy into other rice products.

There is, it must be said, an almost complete lack of awareness of Guyanese rice. Consumers do not demand it and nor does it command high prices, although justified, in the boutique world of Fashion Groceries. It is perhaps this invisibility that prevents the investment required to bring the industry to its next level; consumer-driven demand with the concomitant raising of prices for the industry.

Eerily similarly, Georgia’s wine industry languishes in almost complete obscurity; although producing wine now for 8,000 years, and believe me, during that period they have learned a thing or two, it is remarkably difficult to find Georgian wine outside Georgia, and the former Soviet countries. It is true that they export over 11 million bottles, but as 10 million of them go to the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, it is improbable that you will have run into one.

Some are, of course, exported to the US, Canada and western Europe, but nowhere close to the quantity that its quality deserves.

Which is a great shame; the wine, while its pedigree is long, it is not unbroken, has only recently come to include some marvellous and delicate varieties. The primary varieties are Saperavi (red) and Rkatsiteli (white), each producing some fine wines. Winemakers are both artisanal small-holders and modern wineries, and production is most certainly geared to serving a broader western market.

In concert with Guyana, without public knowledge of and demand for Georgian wines, building the next step to becoming a recognised source of fine wines will remain difficult; and for no other reason than the geographical ineptitude of the market.

Georgia and Georgetown are indeed delightful places for tourists, but more that that; each sits on a product and industry that offers increasing demand; its ever more complex distribution systems offering ever more opportunity should make Georgian vintners and Guyanese rice farmers smile.

The market, however, needs more geography lessons.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Guyanas: Of Rum and Armadillo

Food and drink are important, and it is equally important to keep one’s mind open to new and exciting taste treats; the Guyanas are no stranger to eclectic meats, and there are several restaurants around happy to serve the unsuspecting Cochou-bwa, Pakira, Tatou and the suchlike. So clutching what was left of my taste buds, I ordered a combination dish and, it being in St. Laurent du Moroni, and thus France, could wash it all down with a most agreeable bottle of Bordeaux. 

Cochou-bwa seems to refer to a smallish wild boar; Pakira I was reliably informed was “Pakira” leaving considerable doubt about its provenance, and Tatou was translated simply as Armadillo.

Not that I needed a great deal of explanation as its rather tough exterior was a dead giveaway; however an armadillo roasted, opened with care and accompanied by some jungle greenery, it proved to be a highlight. I shall try and instruct my local butcher in Winnipeg, but I doubt that I will succeed.

Armadillo oddly, does not taste like chicken. Odd only because folks routinely describe any sort of unknown foods as tasting “rather like chicken”. I have heard this of a wide variety of mammals, some slightly fowl-like fish, insects and the more select parts of otherwise normal animal foods. Armadillo, however, belongs firmly in the pork family. 

Its flavour, sweet, rich and extremely tender, was delightful, surprising and interrupted only by the waiter’s insistence that my bottle of claret was insufficient to bring out the true succulence of the armadillo.

Rum was required for this.

Now rum is a catch-all phrase, in much the same way that “vodka” is a word that covers all manner of ghastly distilling experiments as well as some rather nice stuff. French Guyanan rum comes often in a rather mean looking bottle, made by the local “rhum co-operative”, and sold for very few euros indeed. Usually poured over a couple of pulverised limes, and a touch of fresh cane sugar, the concoction, a “ti punch” is really rather pleasant if not sophisticated. 

But as a dinner tipple to wash down the roasted armadillo, I was not sure. I thought long and hard about the inevitable headache, and finally took the plunge; it has to be said that the sweetness of the meat did balance the sugary character of rum; the volumes required to be a dinner tipple, however, were beyond even me. 

However, the rums available throughout the region are of rather high standards. In particular the El Dorado family of Guyanan rums offer some spectacular single distillate products, aged in small batches and offering a very distinctive flavour. They use original stills, some as old as 200 years, which may not sounds extreme in the world of old-world spirits, but for the Caribbean, these stills are unique.  

Suriname too offers some fine sipping rum. In particular, I believe, the Borgoe 82, blended and sold by Suriname Alcoholic Beverages NV is the finest. It is smooth, almost too smooth for those who enjoy a little bite from their rum, but a marvellous long and slightly caramel impression will bring a smile to the most jaded face.
However, I would still to rum before (and after dinner) and a gentle Bordeaux to wash down the armadillo.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Paramaribo, Suriname's wonderful capital.

Well, needless to say, after such a good introduction to the region, I had no choice but to return, and look a little more deeply. So armed with two friends, strong-armed to head off for ten days, we flew to Paramaribo and started the expedition.

Paramaribo is a wonderful place; vibrant, unusual architecture, activity and a fine local beer called Parbo. We stayed not at one of the larger tourist hotels in town, but at the Guesthouse Amice, a twenty minute walk, or five-minute cab ride, from the centre, and a fine choice it was.

The property is small, with only ten or so rooms, friendly beyond belief, clean and most comfortable. It has a swimming pool that falls well short of Olympic proportion, but is ideal to cool off after exploring the town. And there is much to explore.

The centre of Paramaribo is delightful; dating back to the late 1700s, it is a mix of British and Dutch colonial imaginations, some of which were apparently quite fertile, contemporary adaptation, tons of colourful mini-buses, a huge river incorporating among other flotsam and jetsam a scuttled German naval ship, and beyond all, people.

The Surinamese, like their cousins in Guyana and French Guyana are of six or seven races; the indigenous Amerindians, Europeans (mostly British, Dutch, French and Portuguese), Africans brought as slaves, Indians and Javanese brought as indentured labour and the Chinese. In Paramaribo the central mosque lies adjacent to the main synagogue, a symbol of the regions astonishing lack of cultural friction. The communities live together, and offer the rest of the world an image of tolerance that seems to be in very short supply elsewhere.

Our hosts on the second morning, Oswald and Marjorie, are a delightful couple involved with the tourism board among other interests. They picked us up early and drove us first to their delightful house, tranquilly located by a river close to town, and then to two wonderful local markets.

Markets are terrific; colourful, bustling, wonderful smells and smiley people surround one, and the spirit of the local community becomes vividly evident. And so it was at the local affair where a myriad of food waited to be prodded, admired and finally taken home for food. We went next to a big central market, and there, in addition to hundreds of stalls were several small restaurants serving a variety of astonishing foods. From very peculiarly coloured pastries, of a particularly sticky demeanour to the most interesting bowls of Javanese soup, everything was available. And, it must be said, in conditions that can only be described as scrupulously clean. Not a fly to be seen, a great injector of confidence when buying any food at a market.

Then to explore this remarkable town; we drove to Fort Nieuwe Amsterdam, an eighteenth-century fort on the far side of the Suriname River; it is a fine place to wander, cogitate, ponder and generally imagine the life of both the settlers and their slaves. It would have been a very, very hard life, and in its way as unforgiving as life was in the Arctic for their contemporary explorers.

Heat, humidity, disease and hardship were rife; the jungle, a vast and untamed region to be hacked away with primitive instruments, and being Dutch, hundreds of kilometres of drainage ditches, polders, dykes and sluices to be designed and built. Lives by the thousands were lost in this extraordinary quest, and it is easy to wonder why.

Contemporary Suriname, after centuries of colonial life, a revolution, a massively destructive civil war has now settled into a most positive rhythm. Everywhere is construction and activity; the city is growing and concurrently the distant rainforests are beginning to surrender their trove of mineral riches. Money is flowing into the country, and positive investments, we are told, are starting in education and health.

It is a country of extreme natural beauty, and one that has a fine opportunity to develop along its own path. There is much to be positive about Suriname.