Tuesday, 28 October 2008

WARNING: May contain nuts...

On tropical islands and shorelines everywhere, local people call the coconut palm by a variety of names, which reflect its usefulness to these societies - Tree of Life, Tree of Abundance, Tree of Heaven. Almost every part of the coconut palm is used. It's a source of food, drink, oil, fuel, animal feed, wood, shelter and cocktail mixer. In writing this post it's difficult for me to know what information to include; the end-uses of this botanical miracle are so diverse, and interesting...but hey! This isn't Wikipedia so I'll confine this post to my usual facile skimming of the facts, as they apply locally.

As I've noted in a previous post, coconut cultivation and processing now takes a backseat to tourism and fishing as primary employment within the Samui population, but it must still enjoy the number two position, after tourism, in value to the local economy. Although in decline for years as plantations have been destroyed to make way for real estate developments, Samui still is home to around 2,500 different varieties of coconuts - the world's largest diversity in one location and ships some 2 million nuts a month to Bangkok.

To many visitors the coconut palm is an enduring symbol of the tropics and for me, almost any vista worth viewing, when framed by coconut fronds is made special by their inclusion.

Just about every part of the coconut tree - trunk, fronds and fruit is useful to man, but the process starts with harvesting. Plantation workers use various devices to detach the nuts, either by hand, after climbing the tree; by means of long poles or the employment of monkeys trained to select and pick nuts from the highest trees, removing them from their tough stalks with a twisting motion. Retired monkeys don't really get to retire on Koh Samui. Instead they continue to work performing for visitors and have become a popular and valuable tourist attraction.

The harvested nuts are stockpiled and allowed to dry out, making it easier to remove the 'meat' which shrinks away from the inside of the nut. The coconut meat can be grated and soaked in water to produce coconut milk, and coconut cream, the higher solids milk which quickly rises to the surface after standing for a while. Alternatively, the meat is dried in ovens or on racks above slow burning fires where it is converted to copra, from which oil is extracted.

It usually takes 12 months for a nut to mature from pollination to harvest, with husk colour the best indicator of coconut maturity. Nuts harvested at the tenth month or colour-break stage are stored or seasoned for up to a couple of months to increase copra and oil yield.

Dehusking is a manual procedure employing a sharp-pointed shard of steel positioned vertically with the point up. The nut is impaled with a strong determined downward movement. A few strokes loosen the husk, making it come off (usually) in one piece. Impaling requires accuracy and nerve.

Car insurance in Samui will almost certainly not cover coconut damage, so it's wise to avoid parking in coconut shade. Even sitting beneath one of these fully loaded palms is foolhardy and potentially life threatening.

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