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Liqueur with a conscience

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The best type of drinks come with story – Jack Daniels and his Tennessee bourbon, for example, or Laurent-Perrier, the world’s largest family-owned brand of champagne.

Amarula, South Africa’s rich, creamy liqueur made from the fruit of sub-Saharan marula trees, is steeped in history and though a relatively young brand (founded in 1989), its heritage is intricately linked to the community and environment it calls home.

A recent surge in cream liqueurs sales in the UK means Amarula is making waves as a drinks trend right now, with celebrity chef Jo Pratt releasing a series of decadent recipes based around the liqueur earlier this year.

Having bucked the traditional Christmas drink label, Amarula’s manufacturers are keen to highlight its versatility: whether in a summer Martini, an afternoon cappuccino, a cheesecake or even with pan-fried sea bass with chilli butter (one of Pratt’s creations).

But it’s not just the flexibility of the drink that makes it attractive; its rich cultural heritage is also noteworthy. Corporate responsibility is a buzzword for any global brand these days, but Amarula has been living its values long before it became a PR necessity.

Above: This doesn't look too attractive, but the production process behind Amarula supports a host of community projects and employment initiatives

The distinct crown-shaped marula trees have always played an integral role in the societies of sub-equatorial Africa where they grow, including South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Amongst the Zulu, they are known as “marriage trees,” believed to impart fertility and health on those who marry beneath their branches. Among the Venda people living around the South Africa/Zimbabwe border, the bark of the marula tree is thought to help determine the sex of an unborn child – so those wanting a girl use bark infusions from a female marula tree and vice versa. The bark also contains antihistamines and is widely used as treatment for a variety of ailments, including rheumatism and insect bites.

Above: women collecting marula fruit outside the Amarula production plant in Phalaborwa, Limpopo province

Instead of usurping the significance of the marula tree to its own end, Amarula has built on it, and sustainability of both local communities and the environment is central to its production process. Back in mid-February this year at the height of summer harvest, Stylist visited the Amarula plant in Phalaborwa, Limpopo province. Situated in the north east, this is one of South Africa’s poorest areas and the plant is an important source of income for local women, who collect marula fruit in sacks to sell to the plant – often with their children in tow.

They queue outside to sell the fruit, raising money that is crucial to support their families amid a lack of education, healthcare or substantial employment opportunities. Some women are also employed to work within the plant itself and in this way, it’s estimated that around 60,000 people in the local community are supported by the harvesting of marula fruit during harvest season alone. Since this only lasts three months, the Amarula Trust (created in 2010 to house the brand’s different foundations) is working with tribal chiefs in the area to develop sustainable economic development programmes that will support peoples’ livelihoods throughout the year. This includes the extraction of marula nuts for use in health and beauty products and the facilitation of day care centres, allowing mothers to go out and find work.

Above: the Amarula tassel project in Sir Lowry's Pass, Cape Town

This effort to support local communities is continued over the other side of South Africa in Cape Town, near where marula fruit is transported to and fermented to make wine, and finally, liqueur. Some miles from where Amarula is created at the distillery in Stellenbosch, a group of over 80 women based in the impoverished village of Sir Lowry’s Pass make tassels for the Amarula bottles, in a unique job creation initiative.

The project began in a friend’s dining room in 2003, blossoming to its current headquarters at a local community centre. Each of the 85 women employed get paid per item they produce, allowing for flexible working hours that can accommodate childcare. In a community rife with problems including HIV, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, poor housing and sanitation, the project helps to empower women to care for their children, raise money for school fees and set up their own homes.

Above: elephants love the sweet fruit of marula trees and in 2002, Amarula established its Elephant Research Programme to aid conservation efforts

Just as marula trees are coveted by animals as well as people, Amarula is involved in a number of environmental initiatives that run alongside its social enterprises. Marula trees are sometimes referred to as “elephant trees” and are an important part of the local eco-system, providing habitat for elephants, rhino, warthog, kudu, vervet monkeys and of course, elephants, who love the sweet fruity flavour of marula fruit (hence the pervasive myth of elephants getting drunk on marula fruit). As the face adorning all its bottles, Amarula takes its responsibility to the elephant seriously and in 2002 set up the Elephant Research Programme, to track elephant movement rates and ranging behaviour, as part of a wider conservation effort. In 2006, the spirit partnered with the Kenyan wildlife service, donating 20 Kenyan shillings (around 15 pence) for every bottle of Amarula to support wildlife rehabilitation in Nairobi National Park. It also runs a scholarship programme for field guides, encouraging both local employment and environmental protection.

This plethora of projects indicates that, as with many of the best products these days, Amarula’s heart is local – despite being sold in over 100 countries and counting. And the next time Stylist tucks into an Amarula shot, we’ll be thinking not only of the rich vanilla-meets-citrus flavour, but also of the wide-ranging circle of livelihoods and wildlife that permeate its existence.

Jo Pratt's Amarula recipes

Above: celebrity chef Jo Pratt has devised a number of luxury recipes using Amarula as a key ingredient

SOUTH AFRICAN LAMB BURGERS

Makes 6-8 burgers

• 1kg lamb mince (not extra-lean as the fat will keep the burgers moist and add flavour)

• 2 garlic cloves, crushed

• 3 cm piece of ginger, peeled and grated

• 1 medium onion, finely chopped

• 3 tbsp Amarula

• 50g white breadcrumbs

• 100g dried apricots, chopped into small pieces

• 1 tbsp mild curry powder

• ½ tsp chilli powder

• 1 tsp ground cinnamon

• Oil for brushing

To serve:

• Burger buns, ciabatta rolls, flatbread or pitta

• Salad and condiments of your choice

  • Place the lamb mince in a large mixing bowl and add in the garlic, ginger, onion, Amarula, breadcrumbs, apricots, curry powder, chilli and cinnamon. Season well with salt and pepper and mix by hand until well combined.
  • Divide and shape the mixture into 6-8 burgers. If you want to check the flavour, fry a small burger in a drop of oil before shaping the rest and, if necessary, add extra seasoning.

  • Place the burgers on a cling film covered tray and keep them in the fridge to relax for at least 30 minutes.
  • When you’re ready to cook the burgers, heat a griddle or frying pan until it is really hot. Brush with a little oil, and cook the burgers for about 8 minutes, turning them every minute or so. Alternatively cook on a hot barbeque hot (the coals should be glowing white) for the same amount of time.
  • Serve the burgers as you wish, whether in buns, rolls, flatbread or pitta with any salad or condiments.

STICKY AMARULA TOFFEE POPCORN

Makes enough for 4 people

• 1 tbsp sunflower oil

• 50g popping corn

• 40g salted butter

• 40g light muscovado sugar

• 2 tbsp golden syrup

• 2 tbsp Amarula

  • Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the corn and swirl around to coat in the oil. Cover with a tight fitting lid. Turn the heat to low and when the popping has stopped remove from the heat.
  • Meanwhile, place the butter, sugar and golden syrup in a separate pan. Heat gently until the butter has melted. Increase the heat and let the mixture bubble for 2 minutes. Slowly pour in the Amarula and bubble for 1 minute. Pour over the popcorn and stir well to coat.
  • Transfer to a flat tray or baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Leave to cool for about 30 minutes in a cool place (not the fridge) before serving.

AFRICAN RAREBIT MINI TOASTS

For the Rarebit Toasts

• 175g mature cheddar cheese, grated

• 3 tbsp Amarula

• 15g flour

• 15g fresh white breadcrumbs (about 1 thick slice of bread, crust removed)

• ½ tsp English mustard

• ½ tsp Worcestershire Sauce

• 1 egg yolk

• 6 thick slices of white bread

For the Tomato garnish

• 3 ripe tomato

• 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

• 1 tbsp very finely chopped chives

  • To make the Rarebit mixture, place the cheese and Amarula in a small non-stick saucepan over a medium heat to slowly melt together. Make sure the mixture doesn’t boil. Add the flour, breadcrumbs, mustard and Worcestershire sauce and stir over the heat, until the mixture forms a paste and leaves the sides of the pan. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.
  • Once cold, add the egg yolk and beat well. Chill in the fridge.
  • To make the tomato garnish, quarter and remove the seeds from the tomatoes. Finely dice the flesh and place in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper and add the olive oil and chives and stir to combine. Keep to one side.
  • Pre-heat the grill to high.
  • To make the toasts, you will need a pastry cutter or glass, which is about 5 cm in diameter. Cut out 6 circles from the bread. Place the bread on a baking sheet and toast on both sides until lightly golden. Using your hands, mould some of the rarebit to fit the shape of each piece of toast. Sit on top and return back to the grill for a few minutes until golden.
  • Spoon some tomatoes on top of each one and serve.

Visit Amarula on Facebook at facebook.com/amarula

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