Who knew that Grand Marnier oranges came from Haiti? I sometimes worry about my level of obscure booze related knowledge, but until I visited Cap-Haitien I had no idea Haiti was the leading source of fine orange flavors in French liqueurs. Grand Marnier, Cointreau and Marie Brizard all rely on Haiti for their bitter orange needs.
I learned this startling fact while lounging around on Labadie Beach outside Cap-Haitien. I had tagged along to the beach with a group of guests from my hotel. There was an Alabaman sexologist who had set up a remote village school, her daughter, and a Christian film crew shooting a documentary about the school. Collectively the Christian film crew looked something like the Village People, so that is what I will call them. A diverse cluster of mustached young men, they lacked an Indian chief, but had military man and leather man well covered. I never saw them shooting, but I can imagine that when they did so a construction worker appeared to do various manly things. The piece de resistance though was somewhere the original Village People never dared to go, a Jesus look-alike, his flowing beard and hair offset in true ’70s style by a thin sweat-band and oversized reflective shades.
The Village People looked far too dangerous to share a body of water with, so I left them to frolic in the waves and settled myself under a palm tree. Before long a Haitian guy joined me, helped himself to my rum, and launched into a discussion of how the CIA had assassinated Bob Marley. His favorite rum was Meyers from Jamaica. You cannot buy Meyers in Haiti, but he said the cruise ships that visited Labadie sometimes brought it in with them. He did not care for my Barbancourt White, but luckily had no problems slumming it. Later the sexologist joined me and the Haitian guy disappeared. I am not quite sure how it happened, but somehow the topic of conversation drifted from her telling me all about sanky-pankies (on which she had written a learned thesis), to her telling me that Grand Marnier was “made in Haiti” by the man who owned the beach we were lounging around on. The sanky-pankies were far from normal, but this last revelation was just bizarre!
I could not believe that Grand Marnier was really made in Haiti, but was sure there would be some truth in what she was saying. She was adamant that Grand Marnier had some kind of factory in Cap-Haitien that processed oranges. When I thought about it, Grand Marnier was strangely popular in Cap-Haitien. I had seen it everywhere.
Online research back at the hotel confirmed that Grand Marnier and Cointreau really did source bitter oranges from Haiti. Both companies owned large orange plantations a couple of hours drive from Cap-Haitien. A few years earlier the two liqueur houses had become embroiled in a bitter labor dispute, and most of the online material I dug up dealt with the plight of their workers. It seems that picking, peeling and grating oranges from dawn till dusk pays extremely badly, irritates the skin and lungs, and occasionally results in lost fingers. Ouch!
Given the distance to the plantations and the likelihood that their labor issues made them sensitive to visitors, I decided to ask Madame Joelle (the hotel manageress) if she knew anything about a Grand Marnier orange processing facility in Cap-Haitien. Madame Joelle was busy having coffee with someone so I went and sat by the pool with a book. Once Madame Joelle was free I asked my question. Unbelievably, she told me she had just been having coffee with the man I should be speaking to (I think she said he was Daniel Zephir). Unfortunately he had left to the airport on his way to France.
Missing out on meeting Haiti’s Grand Marnier Orange King by just a few minutes was disappointing, but I managed a consolation prize. Madame Joelle arranged an appointment for me to see Nonce Zephir at Establishment Novella, a Cap-Haitien agricultural products export company that has been supplying oranges to Grand Marnier for many years. Establishment Novella was what the Alabaman sexologist had grandly labeled a “Grand Marnier factory”. Of course Establishment Novella did not produce Grand Marnier at all, simply being an orange peel trader that supplied Grand Marnier.
Establishment Novella lay behind a nondescript iron gate on a quiet street in the foothills at the south end of Cap-Haitien. There was no obvious sign indicating its presence. My moto-taxi driver made a couple of unsuccessful sweeps up and down the street and had to stop and ask before he found the address.
Beyond the gate was a courtyard thickly matted in coffee beans spread out to dry in the sun. I picked my way over the slippery beans and headed towards the main building. Nonce Zephir, an elderly French Haitian, saw me coming and was at the door to meet me. In between ushering me into the small office he dabbed a tissue at something stuck in his eye. He was not having a good day, but livened up once we got talking.
We sat down and chatted about Grand Marnier, oranges, and Haiti. Mr. Zephir said that Establishment Novella was purely a processor and exporter of dried orange peels (along with coffee and cacao), and knew none of the secrets of Grand Marnier’s production. Grand Marnier was a key customer though, and they had been supplying oranges to Grand Marnier for at least three generations. He could not tell me exactly how far back the relationship stretched, or how it had begun, just that his grandfather had already been supplying Grand Marnier with orange peels. Though I never thought about it before, the close links between French liqueur houses and Cap-Haitien orange suppliers should come as no surprise. Before the Haitian slaves rebelled and won independence Cap-Haitien was the center of French wealth in the Caribbean, and after the fighting died down French economic interests remained almost as entrenched as ever.
Establishment Novella says it is merely a buyer of orange peels, and is not involved in the orange plantation business. That may not be completely accurate. Articles on the labor disputes of a few years ago indicate that Daniel Zephir and Establishment Novella assist Grand Marnier in managing its orange plantations. Without technically owning orange plantations Establishment Novella may still be involved in that side of the business. Of course it could also be a case of disgruntled orange workers venting their anger at the wrong target. Anyhow, Nonce Zephir maintained that the main focus of Establishment Novella was purchasing, drying, cleaning, grading and exporting bitter orange peels.
The oranges are a small, green skinned, pale fleshed orange known as Citrus Bigardia. You often hear that this orange variety is bitter to the point of being inedible and used only for its fragrant skin. In fact, these little green oranges can be purchased in every fruit market in Haiti, and are widely consumed for their flesh and juice. The taste is light and sour, with a bitter grapefruit-like edge, and a hint of the fragrant quality you get from a lime. They may be best known for their skins, but they also make a good juice that is refreshing without being either sugar-laden or excessively sour.
The peels of the fruit are removed in quarters, pith and all, then dried, cleaned and graded. Mr. Zephir took me to see a warehouse where bag upon bag of dried orange peels sat waiting for cleaning and grading. Grabbing a peel, he absent mindedly scratched his neck with it while showing me around. He was a little cagey about photography, not wanting the sacks of dirty peels to be photographed. In fact they were just a little dusty and did not look too bad.
While Grand Marnier is one of Establishment Novella’s biggest customers, the firm also supplies Marie Brizard and other liqueur manufacturers. Haitian orange peels are popular owing to being organic (so the locals say anyway), hand processed, and economically priced. Of course not all the peels go into liqueurs. Many of the peels, and I’m hoping it is the lower grade ones, go into products like marmalade and perfume.
Mr. Zephir told me that Grand Marnier actually sources two products from Haiti. The primary product is dried bitter orange peels, but a secondary product is orange essential oil. This essential oil is produced on the Grand Marnier orange plantation by further refining dried peels through grating, mixing with water, and centrifuging. Precisely how the dried peels and oil are incorporated into the final product is of course a secret.Â I don’t think Grand Marnier mention the use of orange essential oil though.
Despite being the largest supplier of bitter orange peels to the French liqueur industry, Haiti has little cachet as a brand. Instead of proudly advertising that their use of Haitian oranges, Grand Marnier, Cointreau and others make vague references to bitter oranges from “the West Indies”. Haiti needs to get organized, fix its horrible international image, and do a little brand building. I wonder which European liqueur house will be first to put the words ‘Haitian bitter oranges’ on a label?
In any case, when reaching for the Grand Marnier, Cointreau or Marie Brizard Triple Sec, spare a thought for Haiti, its famous oranges, and especially its hard-working, low-paid orange workers.