The Great Cambodian Experiment: IV
‘What do you think God has to gain from you getting up to wash your face and do a few quick bends and bows in the pre-dawn hours when no sane person is anything but asleep?’ the Shaykh once asked. This was in Jordan, where I had moved from New York in 2005 to be under his spiritual guidance. A few months ago I spoke to him about coming to the Far East and his parting advice was to do my best to pray each prayer at the first of its time. The clock had just ticked passed 12h15 which meant the window for the mid-afternoon prayer had opened. You only need five minutes and we had until around 3h30.
We prayed, then drove out to pick up supplies from a nearby town. On the way back to the farm we stopped for gas at a busy roadside juncture with a big 7-Eleven, several one-man food stalls and a coffee shop. The coffee shop had a little veranda where I took out my prayer mat while Kruger moved a table and its chairs aside to free up space. A young kid at the next table glanced up over his text books, I guess trying to figure why I was throwing a sarong on the floor. When he saw Kruger lining up next to me and started the call to prayer in a soft voice, the kid politely stood up, bent forward as if out of respect, to give us our privacy. I signaled that he could stay, that we’d just be a minute, but he walked on, backwards, palms touching each other, fingers skyward in greeting, bowing his head. When the time comes for us to pray you get a glimpse of a kind of chivalry in the Thai people many Muslims could learn from. If at their home, they’ll first clean the area where we’ll be praying and then leave the room. Although they’re more than welcome to stick around, to them prayer is probably a private affair and they simply show us the courtesy they would any monk.
Muslims aren’t strangers in this part of the world. Not in the agarwood circles, at least. Apparently Ramadan means booming business for the locals. I’m not sure why it is that from Trat to Bangkok this month is the highlight of their financial year, when most oud is sold. You’d think that by the time Ramadan comes, all the perfume stores in the Gulf and in Saudi ought to be already dashed out for the gift season. Whatever the reason, it’s got more Buddhists looking forward to Ramadan than many Muslims.
We arrived back at the distillery later that humid afternoon and got to work straight away. After the horizon turned a deep red, we stopped to break our sweat with a small coconut each, made the ritual ablution, prayed the evening prayer and got back to adjusting the days’ distillation parameters.
What sets artisanal oud oil apart is the same thing that sets any specialized handmade product apart from its factory-line counterpart. Attention to detail. The fact that you know there’s an artist out there with bandaids all over his fingers after rounding off the perfect leather bag with the perfect stitching job.
Our craft involves keeping score of a scent profile in the making. One way to make oud is to wait around not knowing what to expect from the smell – the wood is cooking and for all you care anything that comes out is fine. This way I can just hang out in Singapore with my family while the distillation takes its course in Thailand. But I’d like to think that we’re not just distilling oil from wood but that we’re crafting a smell, that we’re not just waiting for a generic outcome. It’s a task that becomes all the more difficult when you have several pots distilling in one go. If you’re aiming to capture a special smell, it requires a delicate nose to sync the scent profile of each unit.
There’s a kind of ancestral trail to keep in mind when you make oud. Some traditional coffee brewers take careful measure not to taint their brewery pots with any chemical trails by washing them with soap or detergent. It ‘matures’ the pot and each new cup of coffee brewed in that pot turns out richer, more flavorful than the one before. Likewise, if you just finished distilling high grade agarwood, a shadow of that smell will flow over into your next distillation. If you distill a standard batch of wood right after distilling a high grade batch, you might be pleasantly surprised to find your new oil has a certain kick to it, with a top note redolent of the previous oil.
I know one distiller who hasn’t changed a single thing about his distillery, nor anything that goes into it, in over a decade. The exact same water, the exact same grade of wood, the exact proportions, all cooked exactly the same way. Simply because he knows about the spillover effect. Imagine then how tricky it becomes when you’re running several distillations simultaneously but want to capture a single smell! You have to study the effect of each tweak you made for each unit, when the effects of your adjustments normally only become noticeable after a few hours. You have to constantly be on top of the smell to make sure the notes of each pot stay in tune, hour by hour, day by day, from start to finish.
The scene’s a bit like that of the nutty professor down in his basement lab. Two guys walking around in endless circles, smelling first their wrists then their biceps, then the top of their hands, then the one smells the wrist of the other, then the other the other’s forearm. In between it all, you hear routine bouts of loud nasal exhalations that try to tame a nose that’s going mad. Constant mental analysis interrupted only by nasal paralysis.
We’d gone into the dark hours of the night but the day’s tweaks were done and the sails all set on course until the morning when we could review the scent progression. For now it was safe to hit the sack. I set my alarm to make sure we got up for the dawn prayer. Kruger set two more.