Thursday, 29 January 2015

Elephant No. 118: Amarula

I've been seeing billboards for this liqueur around town for the past couple of years, so I finally decided to buy some.

Amarula is made from the fruit of the Marula Tree (Sclerocarya birrea), which is sometimes known as the Elephant Tree. The fruit is related to the mango, and is about the size of a small plum. Native to southeastern Africa, the fruit is described as having "a citrus tang with a creamy nutty taste."

Marula fruit ripens in mid-January to mid-March, when it is harvested by humans. It is also eaten by a wide range of animals, including rhinos, warthogs, baboons, monkeys, porcupine, zebra, antelopes—and of course elephants.

In addition to being a favourite fruit of African elephants, the marula has been dubbed the "fruit of kings." Some communities make a marula drink that is offered to the spirits of their ancestors. Among some peoples, the marula is known as the "marriage tree" and weddings are held in its shade. Some groups also light fires with marula twigs when babies are born, to give both baby and mother qualities such as tenderness.

Marula fruit.

The tree has medicinal properties, partly due to the antihistamines contained in its bark and leaves. These are used to treat rheumatism, insect bites, skin infections and stomach problems. In addition, a decoction of the fruit is sometimes used to treat tick-infested livestock.

Oil from the fruit's kernel is used as a food supplement, and the kernels are often eaten whole or ground into porridge. The oil can also be used as a candle substitute. The skin of the fruit is often boiled to make a drink or a plant food, and the wood of the fallen tree is turned into furniture, bowls, and implements such as mortar and pestle.

So, what does it taste like? I'm not much for hard liquor and mixed drinks, but in the interests of research, I poured myself a swig.

It's actually very nice. It has the tastes of both fruit and cream, and is definitely strong. It's a bit like Bailey's Irish Cream, although a little more subtle. It's not too sweet or too cloying, and has a pleasant fruity aftertaste. I could be persuaded to quite like it.

I like that the back of the bottle has a wee elephant embossed into the shoulder.

And that the cap has an elephant on it.

To read more about the marula tree and Amarula liqueur, please visit the excellent Amarula website, which includes an extensive recipe book, as well as information on elephant welfare activities supported by the Amarula Trust.

Elephant Lore of the Day
My first thought when I saw the billboards for Amarula was, "Not that old chestnut. Elephants do not get drunk on marula fruit." I was wrong about the reason for the liqueur's name, but not wrong about the fact that elephants do not get drunk on fermented windfall marula.

As late as 2014, African travel brochures, tourists, and YouTube videos were suggesting that elephants got tipsy on the rotten, fermented marula they plucked from the ground. Because it's such a catchy idea—animals get drunk like us!—it's a concept that is proving surprisingly resilient.

As early as 2005, however, a study described in National Geographic had effectively put that idea to rest. It was discovered that elephants don't actually go for the fruit that falls onto the ground. Instead, they pluck the fruit right from the tree, or shake the tree until fresh fruit falls. So, no fermented fruit for picky elephants with champagne tastes.

In addition, the fruit that the elephants do eat passes through their system too quickly to ferment even in their gut. This is, of course, assuming that an elephant could eat enough marula to produce an astonishing 7.1 gallons (27 litres) of fermented marula juice in its stomach, which is what it would take to make it drunk. Given that it takes 200 marula fruits to make one gallon, an elephant would have to ingest more than 1,400 marula fruits—all at the same time.

Elephant eating from a marula tree.
Photo: Thinkstock

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