Marula Cremelikør

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Slugged back in a Springbok shooter or slowly sipped against the spectacle of another technicolour African sunset, Marula Cream remains an iconic, proudly local liqueur.

As a South African, there are many things that bring a tear to the eye. There are the not-so-good things like preventable Aids deaths, crime, under-paid cops and certain politicians. Yes, there’s often much to cry about, even for fully-grown manne.

But then there are the good things. Like when Nelson Mandela wore a Springbok jersey and we won the Rugby World Cup on home ground in 1995, and when we brought it home from France in 2007.

We all but sobbed when “onse” Charlize delivered her Oscar acceptance speech in 2004 for her outstanding performance in Monster and when Tsotsi scooped the golden statuette for best foreign-language fi lm two years later.

Even the more hardened among us were touched when we “got” the FIFA World Cup for 2010.

We’re a sentimental bunch, that’s for sure. I mean, who hasn’t felt a patriotic stirring when flying home after a long stretch on foreign soil and hearing (if you happen to be on our national carrier) that good old “Seffricen” accent emanating from the cockpit, warmly welcoming you to the land of rainbows and miracles?

Certainly right up there with the heartstring-tugging stuff is that first taste of Amarula Cream, poured from a dinky bottle over ice in a plastic goblet, sipped 20 000 feet above the ground (somewhere down below, a fish eagle cries, the bush stirs with the movements of creatures great and small). It’s the taste of home.

Even for those not big on cream liqueurs, there’s something terribly evocative about it, and that’s not just the elephant on the label conjuring memories of evening game drives in Kruger Park.

And unlike the toffee-flavoured varieties, which taste like liquid pudding with a kick, Amarula is not sweet in the cloying sense. (Though it’s just as dreamy on ice cream as the others…)

Amarula’s taste is somewhat exotic and, reminiscent of the guava, a touch on the tart side.

Made from the fruit of the indigenous Marula tree, which grows wild in sub-equatorial Africa and is abundant in the sub-tropical lowveld, it might almost be good for you if it weren’t for all the cream and sugar (admittedly a big part of the “yummy” factor).

The Marula fruit has four times more vitamin C than an orange and is rich in minerals too; it’s been an integral part of the diet and well-being of local communities for generations.

Amarula’s early ancestor is mampoer, aka witblits, a local “fire water” thought to have been originally made using over-ripe Marula fruit.

And it’s widely believed that the fruit has aphrodisiac properties, possibly a reason why it’s not only adored by elephants but that the popular drink is enjoyed in more than 160 countries around the world.

The satin-smooth cream liqueur first appeared on the South African market in 1989 and is now the country’s most widely distributed alcoholic beverage: Amarula Cream.

Its success is underpinned by several heavyweight accolades. At the 2007 International Wine and Spirit Awards, Amarula won Best Liqueur in the World and was judged “Best in Class”, with a Gold medal the following year.

Furthermore, it was given “Superbrands” status by the South African Superbrands Council 2008/2009, part of a global body of branding savants who “identify and pay tribute to exceptional brands”, with the criteria for selection including “market dominance, longevity, goodwill, customer loyalty and overall market acceptance”. Amarula received an overall grading of 92%.

And there’s more feel-good stuff, apart from the warm and happy feelings likely to be experienced after a glass or two.

Nature lovers can take a few extra glugs with their consciences appeased as Amarula is deeply involved in the protection, management and conservation of the African elephant; its Amarula Elephant Research Programme invested R3.1-million in the first five years of the project.

It’s a South African icon in every sense, as much so as the spires of churches rising above the high streets of every dusty little dorp, biltong and koeksisters.

But there’s no getting lost in translation here; wherever Amarula happens to be enjoyed, it’s the taste that says it all.

How amarula is made

It all starts in the Phalaborwa region of Limpopo Province, the gateway to the Kruger National Park. Here visitors can even visit the Amarula Lapa and stock up on the cream liqueur and other merchandise.

It’s also central to the lives of the local communities who, during the season, pick the marula fruit for pulp processing.

From January to March the marula tree bears its fruit, which ripens and falls to the ground. (The fruit is never picked from the tree.) The fruit is traditionally harvested by women, who deliver it to the Amarula production plant near Hoedspruit.

In the off -season, Amarula sponsors community-based job creation projects to supplement the harvesters’ income.

At the production plant, the kernel is removed and the flesh crushed from the skin, with the pulped fruit fermented in a manner not unlike the winemaking process.

After fermentation, the marula “wine” is distilled in copper pot stills and is then matured in small oak casks for about two years.

The distillate is enriched with marula extract and then blended with cream to a smooth consistency to form Amarula Cream as we know it, with an alcohol content of 17%.

(A)marula facts

The drought-resistant marula tree (Scelerocarya birrea) is indigenous to sub-equatorial Africa and is found in 29 countries.

It’s considered one of Africa’s treasures, with evidence suggesting that, like the baobab, it has been around – and revered – since ancient times.

Only the female tree bears fruit, while the male tree displays flowers.

A single tree can bear up to 500kg of fruit per year, which can only be harvested in the wild.

The marula tree is protected by custom and law, and features prominently in tribal fertility rites.

It is known to the Zulu as “The Marriage Tree”; a potent fertility symbol, it is used in a cleansing ritual before marriage.

The marula fruit is thought to be an aphrodisiac and, by eating it, local women believe that they are more likely to become pregnant.

The bark of the tree is said to have powerful medicinal properties. The northern Sotho people believe that the marula tree was offered to the people by the spirits and is thus sacred.

Herds of elephants travel miles to gorge themselves on the ripe fruit.

Purportedly driving elephants “mad” when eating the lightly fermented fruit that has dropped to the ground, there is, however, no conclusive evidence about drunken pachyderms.

There is zero wastage in the making of Amarula: the remaining pips are collected, dried and then given back to the community who use the oils from the inner nuts for various ointments. The highly nutritious fruit is also used to make juices, jams and other comestibles.

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