Last week one of the vendors I work with at my new job gave me a bottle of Mât Sim. It’s Vietnamese wine made from honey myrtle fruit. I thanked him as he described its flavor, and suggested it go over ice. It’s like a port wine, he said.
So tonight, after a day over the stove, prepping about 4 days worth of meals, I thought I might dive into it. Hubby suggested it a moment later, and prepped a wine glass with ice cubes after he read my mind. We tried it. We let the teen try it. He didn’t think it was so bad. We let the little teen try it; he almost barfed on the spot (this is why we let him). I tried it again. Then hubby. He decided he didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was so bad. He guffawed after a second sip. I said, “hey, where’s your sense of adventure? Remember the cashew wine?!” And so we spent the rest of dinner tag-teaming the cashew wine story for the kids.
In 1998 we honeymooned in Belize. But we aren’t divers, and not so big on big hotels, so we opted out of the touristy side of the Central American country, and stayed in the interior, in local villages, and toured areas few eyes had ever seen. It was my kind of thing, for sure. In the week we were there, we walked through a bat cave, just the 2 of us and our guide (who was barefoot) with tiny headlamps and no sign of pathways, railings or stairs. It was the real deal. We took a local fishing boat out to an unnamed island (that you could throw a rock all the way across) and snorkeled with sharks and manta rays. We were supposed to visit a jaguar preserve, but we were there in the rainy season (just days before hurricane Mitch hit it and Honduras, actually), and that morning, our guide learned the road was washed out, so his jeep couldn’t make it into the preserve. I asked if we could walk and he assured me that nothing was getting across the landslide. I remember at that time I couldn’t imagine what a road might look like that was washed out the way he described.
He offered instead to take us on a waterfall hike nearby, and soon we found ourselves deep in a jungle with no one else around. He pulled to the side of the road and pointed to a small opening in the brush, calling it a trail. We walked single-file, tropical vegetation brushing our legs, until his progress was stopped at a creek we couldn’t cross. “I took a wrong turn, lets backtrack to that last split.” I hadn’t seen a split, but he found it, and pulled out his machete to clear a space wide enough that we could walk down it. Metal hit vines and giant leaves with each repeating swing. Left, right, swing, swing. He panted, resting several times as we padded through the lush greenery. Bird calls I had never heard before met my ears. Flickers of movement under leaves. He stopped short and held up his finger, “Listen… Smell that?… Peccaries!” Our eyes got wide, we looked at each other, as the sharp, wild scent crossed my nose.The local wild pig is also called javelina, and they roam in little packs, rooting up the mud for grubs. According to our guide, Tui, they are very tasty, too. Up the next incline he stopped again. Heaving breaths in the moist air, we looked and listened. He pointed to the ground. A jaguar paw print on our trail, larger than I thought it would be, and just a few hours old, according to Tui.
We stopped for lunch at a rare opening in the canopy. There was a flat area where a small thatched roof stood on stilts, covering a makeshift table. On the table were sifting boxes. No one was there. I walked around it to find an application for permit to excavate from the University of Illinois. It was a single page sealed in plastic, nailed to one of the support stilts. Then I noticed a large nearby mound, covered in vines and trees, like it had been there forever. It could have been a hill in the landscape, but it was even and if you imagined it without jungle all over it, it was clearly geometric in shape. Before I could wonder, Tui answered my question: “It’s a Mayan pyramid that has yet to be excavated.” What a marvel! I looked around an noticed several of them poking out of the ground where the canopy was most sparse. Imagine what they will find! Undiscovered ruins – and I laid eyes on them before they were disturbed! I’ve thought for years that I should go back and see what it looks like now. But I’d have to find Tui first, because I couldn’t tell you where it is on a map.
The next day we were in a tiny wood boat going down a river on our way to see manatees, I think. Tui had said that there is a shop that sells mango wine and cashew wine along the river, and he was excited to be near enough to get some. The boat pulled up to a nondescript shack on stilts over the water, covered by a tin roof. It was all alone in the jungle. No signs of other settlement. The only markings were a battered old Coca-Cola sign under his tin roof, and a hand written sign that said “Mango wine cashew wine”. As we approached, an old man came out and greeted Tui. We decided to buy a bottle of each. We stood on the dock as the old man went back through his shop to his living quarters, which consisted of a couch and a fridge on a wood slat floor. He pulled out two dingy (perhaps mossy) old bottles and filled each one from a vessel on the counter before pressing a cork into it. Then he grabbed a third bottle out from behind a curtain and handed it to Tui. We paid him about $2 per bottle. Creamy tan liquid shined in the light. No labels, no seals. Straight from the maker himself, in the middle of a river in the middle of the Central American jungle.
When we got home we opened the bottles to taste them. The mango wine was almost palatable. The cashew wine, not so much. It was mossy, flat, a bit bitter, and had tiny particles floating in it. The fermentation was more like vinegar than anything else. We let them sit for several months, and eventually made it through the mango wine. I think the second half of the cashew wine met the kitchen drain. No matter. For me, it’s all about the experience. That experience happened over 20 years ago and I still relish in the memory of cashew wine. All it took was a little mât sim to bring it back.