Mariana asked me a while back whether spirits (the drinking kind) were made of root vegetables during colonial times in Africa: and I haven’t come across this procedure in colonial literature. Alcoholic beverages were – and continue to be – made from grains and bananas.
In most of his travel journals he displays a great fondness for learning about local food and food and drink processing techniques and also for inventing some of his own, based on local produce.
Sir Baker’s wife, Lady Florence, accompanied him throughout his African adventures and one wonders how much his interest in describing and experimenting with local food processing might be due to her. Here is his description of the sweet potato whisky process, which is quite amusing in places.
… In the meantime, I had made myself excessively comfortable; we were in a beautiful and highly cultivated district, in the midst of immense fields of sweet potatoes (in central Africa).
The idea struck me that I could manufacture spirit from this source, as they were so excessively sweet as to be disagreeable as a vegetable. Accordingly I collected a great number of large jars that were used by the natives for brewing merissa; in these I boiled several hundredweight of potatoes to a pulp.
There were jars containing about twenty gallons; these I filled with the pulp mashed with water, to which I added yeast from a brewing of merissa.
While this mixture was fermenting I constructed my still, by fixing a jar of about twelve gallons on a neat furnace of clay, and inserting the mouth of a smaller jar upon the top; the smaller jar thus inverted became the dome of the still. In the top of this I bored a hole, in which I fitted a long reed of about an inch in diameter, which descended to my condenser; the latter was the kettle, sunk by a weight in a large pan of cold water.
My still worked beautifully, and produced four or five bottles of good spirit daily;–this I stored in large bottle gourds, containing about four gallons each. My men were excessively fond of attending to the distillery, especially Richarn, who took a deep interest in the operation, but who was frequently found dead asleep on his back; the fire out; and the still at a standstill. Of course he could not be suspected of having tried the produce of his manufactory!
I found an extraordinary change in my health from the time that I commenced drinking the potato whisky. Every day I drank hot toddy. I became strong, and from that time to the present day my fever left me, occurring only once or twice during the first six months, and then quitting me entirely.
Not having tasted either wine or spirits for nearly two years [this was during his travel time in Africa], the sudden change from total abstinence to a moderate allowance of stimulant produced a marvelous effect.
Ibrahim and some of his men established stills; several became intoxicated, which so delighted M’Gambi, who happened to be present, that he begged a bottle of spirit from Ibrahim as a sample for Kamrasi
From: The Albert N’Yanza, Great Basin of the Nile And Explorations of the Nile Sources. by Sir Samuel W. Baker, M.A., F.R.G.S. Gold Medallist of the Royal Geographical Society.
- Curried Sweet Potato Latkes With Homemade Apple Pear Sauce (fitsugar.com)
- Foodie Friday: Alexia Sweet Potato Puffs (eating.health.com)