The wine tree

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Morning hangs dark and misty over the Central Highlands. Curls of smoke rise from fires built around a cluster of stilt homes in the Dak Pling Ward of Gia Lai Province.

Tien, a young member of the Bahnar community, wakes his guest with a gentle shakee. The pair grab com lam (rice cooked in bamboo tubes) and water for the long journey ahead.

They head into the thick forest, before the sun has rise.

Tien carries his tribe's traditional bow and some old arrows. The member of the ethnic community makes his way quietly through the overgrowth, beating back the thick greenery with a sharp knife. He pauses, at times, to wait for his companion to catch up.

After a three hour march, Tien stops, cocks his ear and then lets out a string of howls.

Someone in the forest howls back. They are not far now from their secret destination.

After half an hour, the pair arrives at a small palm tree pregnant with clusters of strange fruit. Another Bahnar man stands under the tree, cutting down the clusters.

Liquid oozes from the stem, which he empties into a pair of long bamboo cups. He adds wild leaves to the cocktails and holds them out to the travelers.

"Let's drink "˜wine," he says.

The drink isn't sweet like ruou can the herb-infused cassava and rice wine that rural highlanders typically sip with straws inserted in a communal jar.

It doesn't share many characteristics with the high-octane rice wine sold in cities and towns and it certainly tastes nothing like beer.

 
Wine is collected from a doak tree in Dak Pling Ward, Gia Lai Province

The "wine" (ruou cay or "tree wine") has a prominent vegetal flavor that's undercut by a muted sweetness, not unlike coconut juice.

The smack of alcohol remains on the palate, long after the first sip.

The three sit on leaves stretched out on the ground for a picnic. Their feast includes com lam, nu (a kind of wood-eating grub) fried and eaten with salt and wild chilies, roast dui (forest mouse) and the delicious wine.

"Eat this dui," Hoach, the tree's owner, says proudly. "I just caught it."

The greasy nu and gamey dui blend perfectly with the wine.

By the end of the feast, the trio is tired and tipsy.

They lie down and fall into a deep sleep under the forest canopy.

Hours later, they are awoken by distant howls followed by footsteps.

Soon, a group of strangers appear out of the woods to join the feast.

The wine tree

The giver of this fine wine is known as the doak tree by the Bahnar and can be found midway up the northern peaks in Kon Tum and Gia Lai provinces.

Though the plants grow deep in the forest, most of them are owned by individuals and families of the Bahnar people. As a result, nobody dares to harvest a drink without express permission.

In these small communities, everyone anxiously awaits for the trees to mature and yield the delectable liquor.

During the first two months of the Gregorian calendar, the Bahnar's ten-month harvest season comes to a close and a period of celebration begins. Everyone heads into the forest to forage for small game and wild fruits. The men typically gather at the doak tree to feast and drink.

The feast time is known as Ning Nong.

"Not everyone has the privilege of tasting this special wine," said A Sang, who also owns a doak tree. "Not even those who have lived for many years in this area."

The owners of the trees take time and care to nurture their precious, natural stills.

Mature trees produce two to three bunches of fruit between January and July.

When they blossom, two year-old trees produce gorgeous clusters of beautiful, fragrant flowers. After two weeks, they swell into vermillion fruits.

When the owner cuts into the stem of these clusters, "wine" trickles out for an entire month.

A Minh says his tree still has another four to five years to produce the juice. The tree will give him 50 liters of "wine" every season, he adds.

After a decade, the tree will cease to fruit. Soon after that happens, the plant withers and dies.

A Minh described the tree as a crucial staple of Bahnar life"”a traditional spot place for people to meet and celebrate.

"During Ning Nong, we drink with many people, but the celebration is most joyful when we gather under the doak tree," he said. "After a feast, everyone, regardless of where they come from, sleeps together and makes plans to see each other the same time next year."

Minh said the wine spoils if not be consumed in a day. People don't sell this drink. In fact, it's never removed from the forest. It must be drunk in the woods beside a fire.

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