Up a verdant driveway and tucked behind tangled viri viri trees is Franheim Kareka’s micro distillery and winery in the Muri Beach area of Rarotonga.
In the small garden, tin roofing sheets rest in the sun. Here lie banana slices drying on wire grids and a mysterious black iron cooker that looks like some kind of land mine, fermenting its secrets.
‘Beep yo horn three times’ is scrawled in chalk on the wooden beam supporting the porch and a tiny tortoiseshell kitten races towards us and curls round our ankles.
Franheim himself appears to welcome us to his headquarters.
We first met Franheim at the Saturday markets, enticed by his vanilla pods. He is the only grower of vanilla on the island and I’ve never smelt vanilla so strong and sweet. We arranged to meet him at his place to collect some pods to try and grow in the glasshouse back in NZ.
What we didn’t quite realize in the joyful, noisy bustle of the market is that Franheim also makes wines and liqueurs from local ingredients. Intriguing…what would you make wine from on a tropical island?
Bananas and coconut water are Franheim’s base ingredients.
On Rarotonga, it is illegal to use sugar in the first fermentation so these wines and liqueurs use entirely natural fruit sugars and ethanol produced on the premises, about 60% of which doesn’t make the grade each batch.
Dry white and fizzy wine are made from fermented banana and coconut water. The red wine gains its tanins and colour from the viri viri in the garden.
The coconut-banana liqueur and the starfruit liqueur tasted clean and sweet like lush dessert wines. The chilli infused banana liqueur had a powerful, lingering kick. Chilli essence forms simply by packing whole baby chillis in a glass jar and sweating them in the sun.
But making the precious vanilla essence is a lengthy process.
Franheim covers 1kg of vanilla beans with coconut water in a large glass jar and leaves it for 3 months. He then tops it up with more coconut juice and leaves it to ferment for a further 6 months to a year. He adds a ‘secret step’ and decants the liquid into the black iron cooker we saw outside. This he leaves in the sun cooking and concentrating down for a further 6 months until you are left with a dark brown sweetness that is totally transporting.
The distillery is a chaotic science lab with jars of concoctions everywhere and ongoing experiments with fermenting coconut flesh and making coconut sugar on the windowsills.
But most amazing of all is the coconut medicine.
Above the door are glass bottles of coconut oil that Franheim is concentrating down in the sun to use as a tincture for his vanilla trees, harnessing its antiviral antbacterial properties in collaboration with that hot Rarotongan sun to heal them from a virus.
This is just simple and clever work co-creating with the surroundings to make the best, cleanest products you can.
Mama’s Noni Juice
Despite dipping my finger in the liqueurs, more my kind of drink was the noni juice Mama Andrew made for me from the tree outside her kitchen.
Noni juice has been used for thousands of years as a healing tree. The fermented juice of its fruit goes into this drink but the roots are also ground and used and the leaf can be placed on a wound to clear infection and speed healing.
Noni boasts a powerful list of health benefits, including that it is an anti-carcinogen. It is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. It has a full complement of B vitamins, so is great for vegetarians, women and those under stress. It is also high in folate, Vitamin C, calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron and phosphorous. This means it is great for your liver, blood and cellular restorative health. It is one of those magical adaptogens, so it balances the endocrine system and helps support the nervous system. It eases arthritis, constipation and can go some way towards treating diabetes. It promotes serotonin production, boosts stamina and regulates blood pressure. It’s pretty amazing stuff!
Mama simply picks the yellow fruits when they ripen and places them in a large glass jar so the jar is about half full. She then allows them to sit in partial sun covered with a piece of clean muslin cloth until they release enough of their juice for her to decant.
The juice itself tastes fairly unpleasant. It is quite bitter but anyone who has tried Chinese medicines or other herbal tinctures will find the taste familiar and more than bearable. It is sold in powdered from in health shops as a superfood, so you could get around the taste that way but it was such a pleasure to drink it straight from the tree.
I shared this with the women at the Rakahanga hostel who use it to fight diabetes. You are advised to sip just a very small glass every morning on an empty stomach. Although I had a glass to taste, it is not known whether pregnant and breastfeeding women should really be partaking. As it is so highly detoxing, you may start to feel wonderful but your baby will bear the brunt of the toxins as they pass out of your system and into theirs. Next time we are in Rarotonga, though, I can imagine ‘enjoying’ this daily. Haha!
Both Franheim and Mama are working in the simplest possible way with ingredients right on their doorstep. Care goes into their drinks and tinctures but, equally, a key factor, is ease. I am so inspired by those who make with the natural world around them, who don’t try to fight it or better it, but just accept its gifts and its abundance and share it freely with friends and visitors.
Thank you, both xxxx