Last of the summer wine

Discussion in 'Vietnam culture' started by Jerry, Nov 11, 2008.

  1. Jerry Priority

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    In this second part from a series of travel articles on Con River in Binh Dinh province, Hai Hau discovers one of the country’s tastiest tipples, Bau Da rice liquor.

    I am normally not a big fan of the hard stuff, but I know when I arrive in a small hamlet in An Nhon district of Binh Dinh province it won’t be long before I’m drinking some of the local liquor. They say that the greatest form of flattery is imitation and nowadays it seems Bau Da liquor can be found everywhere, though technically speaking it can only come from a quiet little hamlet of Cu Lam in Nhon Loc village, which is located along the banks of Con River.

    The hamlet is located in a tranquil spot amongst bamboo groves and green paddy fields and when I arrive at the village gate I can immediately smell a waft of alcoholic yeast in the air. I have no appointment or prior arrangement. I just amble through the hamlet and happen upon Pham Van Anh, who is tending to an open fire inside his home. When I mention I’m here to do some research on the local liquor, he ushers me inside.

    I have, it seems, knocked on the right door. Van Anh has nearly 30 years’ experience of making rice liquor, which in Vietnamese is called ruou (pronounced zeo). “My great-grandfather, grandfather, and father and now my four brothers and I have all produced ruou,” says Van Anh. “It’s not because of any sentimental attachment or the family’s trade secrets, but simply because Bau Da’s sweet-smelling ruou can only be made in Cu Lam.”

    “I am no more skillful than any other ruou-producer,” he continues before adding the most important element or ingredient for Bau Da ruou is the water from an underground stream that runs off the Con River. Of course, villagers may quibble over what is the important ingredient and techniques may differ from house to house, but Van Anh says that everyone uses bamboo pipes for the distillation and only terracotta pots are used to store the liquor, which is heated slowly over a low burning flame.

    When the liquor is finished it should taste as if there is “fire and ice in it”, according to Van Anh. Vah Anh’s friends and neighbours Nam and Tieng arrive. Both men are something of an authority on ruou and have both been officially appointed to showcase Cu Lam village’s ruou production methods at the upcoming Tay Son Rice Liquor Distilling Festival. “A sip of Bau Da ruou gives you a feeling that something is burning in you while you melt in the alcohol,” says Nam. “After that comes the particular sweet flavour of Cu Lam village.”

    As if to prove the alcohol’s potency, Anh dips his finger into a glass before nonchalantly lighting his cigarette with the tip of his finger. As Nam pours a round of shots, he explains that drinking ruou is not just about getting drunk as some people may believe. These men see themselves as connoisseurs. When drinking a glass of Bau Da ruou, which is completely clear, you should leave it sit first, rather than knock it back straight away. You then wait for the flavour to build in your face before sipping from the glass and savouring the alcohol. Bau Da ruou is said to be a magic potion that will dispatch melancholy feelings. It is also said to be medicinal.

    If someone is suffering from a fever , he is told to hover his nose over a jar of ruou and he will sweat out his illness. Nam, Tieng and Anh take immense pride from their hamlet’s liquor but their smiles evaporate at the merest mention of imitation Ruou Bau Da flooding the market at cheap prices. Of late Nam’s family has been producing ruou at a loss and he claims that the 38 households involved in ruou production in Cu Lam are all in the same boat. The hamlet also survives off farming pigs and recently the value of pigs has dipped. With the threat of poverty looming, many of the ruou-producing families are considering getting out of the liquor business.

    Along Highway 1A in Binh Dinh province you can find liquor bottles with a label that reads ‘Ruou Bau Da’, but Nam assures me the liquor in the bottle wasn’t made in Cu Lam. He claims that a company from Quang Nam province signed a contract with Cu Lam villagers with the promise of distributing their product to a wider market.

    The villagers were appalled to learn that soon afterwards the company was buying less and less liquor from Cu Lam and had started to sell liquor, which was made elsewhere, in bottles with the Bau Da wine label. The villagers had inadvertently sold off their brand name. The villagers have teamed up with fellow ruou-producers from Binh Dinh province to establish an association that would reclaim its right to bear the name Ruou Bau Da.

    The thought of reclaiming what is rightfully theirs brings smiles back to my hosts’ faces. Nam raises his glass of ruou and quoting from an old poem, says: “Let us drink some liquor, so that you and I will watch as eternal melancholy fade away.”
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