Haiti, the lost world

of 27 giugno 2023


Borrowing the title from one of Arthur Conan Doyle's novels, we tried to give an account of the days we spent in Haiti with Luca Gargano looking for clairin, a local rum still produced as it was two centuries ago. Because visiting Haiti is not simply a journey through a place, it's a journey through time. 

The other day I went to the supermarket just down the street. I knew I'd see it. But there was nothing I could do about it. The fruit and vegetable aisle is always at the beginning of the mandatory route to checkout, where you can find carbonated beverages, chocolate and, often, condoms. Because after all, life is just like your mother always said: “Study now, love later.”

So I manage to walk past shelves of pre-washed and bagged salads and apricots as perfect as they are tasteless, but I can't help it. I stop and look at it. We look at each other - me just back from Haiti, and it from inside a bag that keeps it prisoner.

A mango.


As I stand there, I feel a mango-sized lump in my throat. I even consider freeing it, but then I think that after all, it was born captive and has never met its wild relatives, haughtily hanging from their trees.

Like the testicles of the bulls that, in the most isolated areas of Haiti, still haul freshly hand-cut sugar cane to the guildives – micro-distilleries that seem to belong to a remote past of burning fires, of sunlight barely filtering in, of a clear liquid flowing into unlikely plastic containers with a mysterious past, which are then offered to passing visitors with a mischievous look.

Well, yes, I've been back from Haiti for just over a couple of weeks and I am just now beginning to realize what I experienced and what kind of trip it was. Those who say they miss Haiti as soon as they step off the plane are lying. A trip to Haiti is something you need time to process; it's not just a journey through space, it's a journey through time. It's a leap backwards, often in several stages. In our case, the first stage took us to the Dominican Republic: so far, so good. The climate was different, the colors were different - including the color of the people - the flavor of the food was different, but it was basically a holiday in an exotic place, and by exotic I mean different from what we are used to. It all changed when we arrived in Port au Prince, Haiti's capital, a place that’s only ever talked about in negative terms: the uncertain political situation, crime, the earthquake, endemic poverty. It's all true - from our TV screens and from our couches. But that's just one side of the story for those who actually set foot in the only colony where a revolt started by slaves and led by freedmen has ever been successful. But that success came at a heavy price, a price Haiti is still paying.

You'll forgive this short historical digression, pedantry is one of my many sins, but in this case it's justified. Haiti is part of the island once called Hispaniola. This is where Columbus landed the first time he crossed the ocean in search of the fabled Cipango, present-day Japan. And this is where the first French and Spanish settlers came and did what Europeans would eventually do throughout the New World: exterminate the island's native Taino and Arawak people through forced labor and imported diseases, and replace the workforce with slaves brought over from Africa. In 1790, what was one of France's richest colonies - perhaps the richest - had a population of just over half a million people, of which barely thirty thousand were white Europeans. Cocoa, coffee, sugar cane as well as cotton and indigo plantations made Haiti - a name that seems to derive from the Arawak word “Ayti” meaning "harsh" - the jewel of the French crown. But that crown was starting to totter.

The French Revolution broke out in 1789, the first slave revolts in Haiti in 1791. The struggle for freedom saw ups and downs, attempts at negotiation and gunfights - but to avoid more historical pedantry I will only mention the year 1793, when a rebel leader announced the application of the French declaration of human rights on the island, effectively freeing the slaves and marking a historical turning point as the first time slavery, the basis of the social system up until that time, was abolished anywhere in the Americas; and 1805, when Haiti's Constitution was enacted proclaiming that "slavery is abolished forever" and "all distinctions of color between members of the same family must cease." The Constitution was a major breakthrough - just think that the United States would only catch up in 1865 - but it was also a slap in the face of major European colonial powers. In retaliation, and for fear that the fire of rebellion would spread from Haiti to other colonies where slavery was the basis of the capitalist economy, Haiti was increasingly isolated, strangling the country's trade and, as a result, the livelihoods of its people.


The reason for this little history lesson is that one cannot understand Haiti and clairin if one does not understand what the Haitian revolution meant and the consequences it had. The country's troubled history, amid natural disasters and political instability, is as harsh as its land, but one of absolute uniqueness.

Yes, Haiti is unlike any other place - suffice it to say that whereas rum distilleries number around fifty in all of the Caribbean, Haiti alone is home to five hundred. This is because Haitian distilleries, untouched by the tentacles of corporations and historically cut off from the global trade, have remained the size of a village bakery or butchery.

Called guildives, these family-run micro-distilleries are often hidden deep in the forest and inaccessible, as almost everything is around here, except by wacky trips on roads that are not just unpaved, they look like they have been precision-bombed by Soviet Katyusha rockets. Walking into a guildive is like entering an alchemist's den. The roof is thick sheet metal and the smell very distinctive - a mixture of fermentation and wood-fired smoke. The man who greets you, whether young or old, is very welcoming and perhaps only a tad surprised that someone would travel all that way just to take a look around his place. He'll happy to let you sample the clear liquid, which has the fresh taste of sugar cane immediately followed by a trail of delicious fire burning its way down to the bottom of your throat. No reservations, no tour hours, no press or marketing offices. Clairin is liquid food, it’s subsistence and perhaps scraps of happiness, communion and luxury to people who seem to have nothing but perhaps have everything - or almost. In villages - often just small clusters of houses - people still cook over open fires, go to bed at dark, raise yard animals, live off the fruits of the land and wash in the rivers that cross the streets - not the other way around. And drink clairin.

It's all a bit shocking for people from Milan, who start getting impatient early in the morning if the person in front of them at the café drinks their espresso in three sips instead of one. Yet I don't think I've ever seen more smiling people than on these streets, in these villages. Especially children, who stare with wide-eyed wonder at games which would probably send Italian kids calling the Child Abuse hotline.

Sorry, I'm going off track. My point is, the purpose of our trip was to visit some of Haiti's main distilleries, whose rum we can now enjoy in Italy as well. But it's all Gargano's fault for planning press trips as if they were dives in the deep blue sea. Or in the Styx, as I admit to having thought when one night, under a torrential downpour, we found the road blocked by trucks stuck in the mud and we had to turn back and find a place to spend the night; or when I ate a few pounds of dust perched on the back seat of a motorcycle driven at full speed by an enthusiastic local pilot, while in my head I kept repeating, like an obsessive mantra, Ungaretti's immortal verses: "We are as leaves on a branch in Autumn."


Michel Sajous looks like he could be a clerk at the Land Registry. Instead, he makes a clairin as elegant as a waltz, incredibly fragrant, silky, immediately and unhesitatingly suggestive of the raw ingredients. He's also the kind of person who, when you compliment him on his clairin, looks you in the eye and says, “I try my best.” Then slyly adds, “and when you do your best, the sky is the limit.”

He started twenty-five years ago by taking over his father's business and turning it from a hobby to a full-time job, because when he lived in Port au Prince he would wake up in the morning and smell the fragrance of the sugar cane. Yes, the sugar cane.

The isolation Haiti has enjoyed, or suffered, depending on the point of view, has ensured that the island's sugar cane was never “adapted” to increase its sugar content or size, and Sajous converted all of his farmland to the Cristalline variety, thinner and less juicy, but with a higher sugar content, brought to the island who knows when. In short, a variety that has never undergone the “forced marriage” of hybridization. It’s just like it has always been. Sajous harvests it and immediately extracts the juice. Fermentation starts naturally with wild yeasts. The liquid is only distilled once to cut the heads and tails, then bottled. The entire process takes place in Haiti. Not at Sajous's distillery, but at Distillerie du Port au Prince, owned by the Linge family - for no other reason than that, considering the state of the roads and the transportation time, moving the glass bottles would make them end up like the English cavalrymen who launched a frontal attack on the Russian artillery in Balaclava.

Just a short distance away - so to speak, because in Haiti time and distance have a different meaning then what we're used to - is the Le Rocher distillery, whose name is derived from Matthew 24-27: “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock." This is where we meet Béthel Romélus, a tall, handsome man lean in physique and measured in words. He began producing his clairin back in 1995. Like Sajous, he resumed a family tradition, as his grandfather owned a guildive. Proving that clairin is not all the same as some might think, Béthel Romélus's is made from syrup - boiled sugar cane juice - with the addition of vinasse, or vindange as they call it in Creole, which is the non-alcoholic residue left over in the pot still from the previous distillation. His clairin seems richer, more intense and more complex than Sajous’s, more of a tango than a waltz, but this kind of comparisons makes little sense.


What matters is keeping in mind that when talking about clairin one should use the plural form and that terroir, sugar cane, yeasts, tradition and production choices all contribute to giving rise to very different rums.

In this regard - as in many others - Haiti is anarchical. Just like the guildives, the best-known distillers make rum from what they have - only in a more advanced way, because they can make choices. Those distillers owe their reputation to Gargano, the Indiana Jones of sugar cane spirits, who scouted them out with the stubbornness so familiar to those who know him, combined with the gentleness of someone who has no wish to change a single thing. Because you can go hunting for the ancient riches of this island, but once you find them you need to show them respect. If you want to fully enjoy them.

Just as you need to show respect for Haitian cuisine, which looks poor but is actually incredibly rich. Free from the often-awkward tricks and gimmicks of Western cuisine, it brings out the flavor of the ingredients natures provides. From crispy fried plantain and mais moulen, a sort of grainy corn polenta used as a side for pork griot (spicy meat) or the delicious lambi, the queen conch, a large sea snail with a collectible shell Haitians cook in a variety of ways, to the local Djon Djon mushrooms with rice, a daily staple.


The chaotic Haitian street markets sell everything, on stalls or simple sheets spread on the ground. You can find mangoes and corn, door hinges and mattresses, clothes and rapadou, large cane sugar cylinders still produced in villages by turning cane juice into syrup, letting it dry in the sun and wrapping it in palm leaves. The flow of people is comparable to a Tokyo subway during rush hour, only more colorful, noisier and dotted with roaming goats, men pushing wheelbarrows or splitting the crowd on motorcycles and women carrying, miraculously balanced on their heads, anything except maybe their husbands. Amazingly, no one goes crazy.

There's much more to Haiti. I personally have all sorts of flashbacks I cherish, some so deeply that I struggle to share them, because I'm sure I won't be able to convey them to those who are still reading me in all of their intensity and fullness. The song of schoolchildren that threatened to cracked my contemporary Western man's hard shell of cynicism - I hope to hear it again in heaven, or at least I hope it will be loud enough for me to hear from hell; the smile and cooking of Djina Linge, keeper and priestess of the island's culinary traditions and wife of Bertie, owner of the Distillerie du Port au Prince, where in 2019 her son Herbert met with Luca Gargano and Vittorio Capovilla, and together they revived the production of batch distillation rum in the Haitian capital. The very Providence First Drops that are accompanying, perhaps even guiding, my words.


Also, the fishermen on Ile la Vache in boats that look straight out of Sandokan, a TV series that was all the rage in the Seventies in Italy (those who were there will remember it, those who weren't, look it up), and those in Cayalo, who defy the waves in canoes literally carved and shaped out of tree trunks; a Haitian league football game, where not all players wear cleats and a sheep might suddenly decide to invade the field; the cashew trees you can eat both the seed and the fruit from; girls walking to school on mud roads, yet wearing their regulation uniform and their hair so meticulously styled with ribbons that one might think there are Parisian coiffeurs hiding somewhere in the forest; the sugar cane fields mixed with cornfields and fruit trees, as in Haiti everything is cut by hand and then only when it’s ready to be processed, keeping the ecosystem essentially as nature - not man - created it.

You don't start longing for Haiti right away. Too much intensity, too much humanity, too much of everything. Heart and brain can't take it all in at once. But on this terrace in Milan, with ambulance and police sirens tearing the air and planes roaring over your head as you try to decide where you'll get your dinner delivered from, because you probably won’t have time to cook - that's when you miss Haiti.