BBC | By Diane Selkirk
From the sea – when all we could see of Anjouan were its green peaks and the indistinct structures of the city of Mutsamudu – we could smell the cloves. “It smells like Christmas,” my daughter Maia said.
Located off the east coast of Africa, between Mozambique and Madagascar, Anjouan is one of the three main islands that make up the country of Comoros (the others are Grande Comoros and Moheli). A former French colony, Comoros is perfect for tourism – with picture-postcard beaches, dramatic volcanic peaks and an abundant marine park. But in the three decades following the country’s 1975 split from France, it suffered through some 20 coups and secession attempts, rendering it inhospitable and virtually unknown to travelers.
A friend on our around-the-world sailing voyage had suggested we visit after reading a few scant details about the archipelago’s rich agriculture, historical cities and unique solution to its political strife (the presidency now rotates through the three islands). So we sailed there, almost on a whim, making landfall in a country we’d only just heard of.
Despite knowing nothing about Anjouan, there was something about it that felt familiar. “How is it I had no idea what a clove tree looked like?” I asked my husband and daughter an hour into an all-day tour. I was looking at a medium-sized tree that’s only special feature was aromatic clusters of ripening cloves. Our guide, Maketse, pointed high in the neighboring trees where we spotted boys picking the clusters. Next, they would separate the cloves by hand and dry them by spreading them on roadside tarps in the hot sun. Over the course of a few days, the spice would shift from bright green and brilliant red to the brown of the cloves in my kitchen. Eventually, as the country’s largest export, these cloves would end up in grocery stores around the world.
Following Maketse, we continued down a winding trail into a fragrant forest. There, women draped in bright fabrics, their faces painted with sandalwood paste to protect them from the sun, were picking delicate yellow ylang-ylang flowers – the base of Chanel No 5, the perfume that Marilyn Monroe made famous. Holding a few blossoms in my hands, I inhaled deeply. The scent – jasmine, pear and maybe carnation and clove – evoked something on the edge of my memory. Maybe it was a party or a wedding from my childhood, my mother and aunt in bright satin dresses with their hair piled high and wearing that perfume.
It takes 18 hours to turn 100kg of these ylang-ylang flowers into three liters of essential oil. Standing in front of one of the island’s 350 wood-fired distilleries – which are kept busy year round supplying around 80% of the world’s ylang-ylang – I watched, captivated, as the flowers were heaped into a crude cauldron and transformed, drop by drop, into pale amber essence.
We weren’t the first sailors to be intrigued by Comoros. Before the Suez Canal was built, it was a favored provisioning stop for ships trading between Africa, Asia, India and Arabic countries. By the 15th Century, the country was firmly Islamic – but then came the English, Portuguese and Dutch. However, it was the French who saw the islands’ true potential: eager to break the Dutch hold on the spice trade, French botany thief Pierre Poivre stole nutmeg, clove, pepper and cinnamon plants from the Banda Islands and smuggled them for cultivation in Comoros (as well as Reunion and the Seychelles). These crops were soon joined by vanilla vines from Mexico and ylang-ylang plants from Indonesia.
Under French rule, plantations in what came to be known as the “Perfume Isles” briefly prospered. French chemists Garnier and Rechler discovered that not only was ylang-ylang, in the form of scented hair oil, popular with Victorians, but it also had medicinal properties. Meanwhile vanilla, which came late to the spice world, became a household staple along with nutmeg, clove, pepper and cinnamon.
Political instability and a volatile spice trade have taken their toll on Comoros, and now it’s one of the poorest countries in the world. When Maketse led us past a busy mosque and into the arms-width alleyways of Mutsamudu’s ancient medina, it felt like we were walking somewhere that was not just lost in time, but forgotten. One person after the next would stop us to shake our hands and ask us where we’re from and what news we’d brought from the outside world.
A man operating a hand cranked sewing machine on an ornate, but ramshackle, table wanted to know what we thought about the last election in the UK. Another man, who was selling his “world famous” bourbon vanilla beans from a shabby storefront, asked questions about Canada. But it was the brother of a woman selling sandalwood paste sunscreen that stumped me. “What do people know about Comoros?” he asked.
I thought of the little ways these islands had touched my life without my knowing: the perfumes that waft by at parties, the vanilla that flavours my ice cream and the cloves that spice my Christmas cookies. “Comoros is almost famous,” I told him.
Back on our boat, I emptied my daughter’s pockets of crushed ylang-ylang flowers, a cluster of red and green cloves, an unripe vanilla bean and some crumbles of cinnamon bark. I was going to throw it all away when Maia started to gather them up to save. “Smell it,” she said of her little bundle of mingled scents. “It’s Comoros.”
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