Turns Out, You Can Make “Wine” Out of Just About Anything
Cashew Wine in Belize
The driver was showing me around his village when he first mentioned it. He pointed at a young Mayan child pulling up carrots and handing them to an older boy who was putting them in a bag for storage, “They’re going to make carrot wine out of those.” I asked for details—or even better, a taste. “They haven’t made it yet,” he said, laughing. “The only thing that’s ready right now is cashew wine.”
They didn’t have many stores in the Mayan village set into the pine-covered mountains of Belize, just a tiny shop stocked with basic groceries and household supplies and a tortilleria selling warm corn tortillas out of a cut-out window a few hours each day. But my driver, Calbert, was sure he could find cashew wine elsewhere.
A few days later we were bumping along the dusty road that wind through the Cayo district in western Belize when Calbert told me that he had asked around his village about cashew wine. He found out that they were selling it at the gas station a few miles down the road. Of course, everything in Cayo is a few miles down the road and it usually takes an hour or two to get there because the dirt roads require careful maneuvering, especially after a rainstorm. “It’s like black ice,” said Francisco, a guide from San Ignacio. While he had never seen black ice in person—or snow, for that matter—he had seen it on TV and thought it was an apt comparison. “I watch Ice Road Truckers and the way they have to move their steering wheel back and forth while the wheels slide—it’s just like that.”
I still wanted to try the wine and since Calbert apparently had nothing better to do, we set out to find the gas station. An hour later, we arrived at the sun-bleached Superstar gas station that sat along the paved highway that lead to Belize City. Inside, the gas station looked like a typical truck stop. The back shelf was lined with liquor; there were tiny bottles of blackberry wine bitters made with palo de hombre (go ahead and Google that), soursop liqueur, craboo wine, locally-made one-barrel rums, Belikin beers, and, at last, cashew wine.
Cashew wine is not made from the cashew nut that sits alongside craisins and coconut flakes in a bag of trail mix. Instead, it’s made from the cashew fruit, which is sometimes called a cashew apple (adding to the confusion, the cashew nut is not actually a nut, but a seed, so basically, what we’ve been eating all these years is a roasted, salted lie).
Cashew fruit is highly perishable and extremely delicate, which might explain why they are incredibly hard to find in the U.S. Due to the dearth of fruit, few people in the U.S. seem to know that cashews grow from the bottom of a fruit and not directly from a tree like walnuts or almonds. In Belize, the so-called “accessory fruit” is plucked, separated from the nut, and fermented into cashew wine.
Because cashew wine is made from fruit, it’s very sweet, with a viciously tart kick. On first taste, the wine bore an unsettling resemblance to apple cider vinegar, which is understandable considering that pantry staple is made from fermenting apples. Fans of kombucha would recognize the sweetly acidic combination, too. The flavor took a little getting used to, but after a little experimentation with temperature it became clear that if the cashew wine was served cold and on the rocks, the ice cut through both the cloying sweetness and the sharp tang of the fermentation, making it almost drinkable, like a slightly off port.
It was also clear that if you sampled enough of it while experimenting, eventually you would give up caring how it tasted. It’s a dangerously slippery slope that unfortunately I am well acquainted with, so I stopped drinking despite only making a modest dent in the bottle. I didn’t want to have a headache the next day because there was too much I wanted to do during my time in Belize. There were waterfalls to climb, caves to swim through, Mayan ruins to see, and a jungle that I had only begun to explore. I didn’t want to waste a day in bed nursing a hangover from overdoing it on cashew wine.
Besides, Calbert told me there might just be a bottle of carrot wine languishing in his brother’s greenhouse.