As a teenager during the summer holidays, my cousin Bernard Allan and I use to work for at least two to three weeks nonstop with our grand father Burton (Papa Burton) Allan, distilling Bay oil in La Plaine. The laborious and time- consuming process of harvesting the Bay leaves and twigs (Botanical name is Pimenta Racemosa (‘Bwa-Den’) included assembling and tying them in big bundles.
Then the bundles had to be carried on our heads from the fields to the road side. After the heaps were big enough, a few days later they would be loaded on a truck and transported to the distillery. The Bay leaf is used to season meats, potatoes, stews, sauces, fish, pickles, and vinegars. It is also used to aromatize Bay Rum and other toiletries.
At the distillery the twig leaves were tightly packed into a container Vat and then covering the vat’s top and sealing it with red dirt. But before that, you have to collect big blocks of wood from the forest because the big pot filled with water just underneath the vat container has to be heated for at least 24 hours during the steam distillation process. Also the vat has to be emptied out after 24 hours to prepare for the next batch. That was the maximum time it took to extract the oil from the bay leaf. Each batch would yield about three quarters of a gallon of oil.
This meant that all night and all day the fire has to be fed- so sleep was intermittent at best on the hard floor. Bay oil is distilled by boiling the chopped leaves under pressure. A hydrometer is used to test the specific gravity of the oil constantly and the purity is also gauged by clarity and smell.
In fact, some villagers referred to the two to three weeks you spent distilling Bay oil as going to (‘La Jole’) jail doing hard time. The oil is sold on the US or European markets, either through brokers or direct to end-users. Bay oil is primarily used as one of several “essential oils” in perfumes and cosmetics .Virtually all perfume and cosmetic fragrances in the world are made from different combinations of these oils.
In the 70s bay oil production mostly occurred on the Atlantic coast from Petite Soufriere to Bagatelle in the south and beyond. There were vibrant cooperatives in Petite Savanne and Bagatelle where oil production was most prolific. According to some reports, the co-operative produced in the order of 90 to 100 45-gallon drums per year (approximately 4,500 gallons). When bought from farmers, it is bought by weight; in 2003: the price was EC$44 (US$16) a pound.
At the height of the Bay Oil distillation in the 70s the rural Atlantic coast villages had vibrant and sustainable economies. Many families were able to send their children to high school and broke the cycle of poverty. The dignity and respect of these rural folks were solid and their communities were much more cost knit in spite of the personal differences or skirmishes that existed.
According to Moe Rosen of the University of Lund in Sweden who completed a study of the Bay Oil industry for his Master’s degree theses in January 2020, there are only seven (7) functioning distilleries remaining in Dominica. Mr. Rosen’s position is that “It is necessary to invest in rejuvenation of Bay leaf trees to achieve the earlier production levels as trees are the main limiting factor. This puts a higher pressure on utilizing the trees and distilleries more efficiently. The price of the oil paid to the farmers need to increase to get more investments and raise the attractiveness of the profession. Another important aspect is to facilitate the labour intensity and modernization to supply the ready market worldwide.”
At university in Washington DC, I majored in Chemistry as my undergraduate studies. I remembered one day we were doing a fractional distillation project in my Organic Chemistry II Lab class. Suddenly and without notice, I got very quiet and emotional. The professor asked why I am not participating in the class today and is everything alright with me. I immediately took a bathroom break where I ‘broke down’.
I reminisced and remembered all that hard work and my late grandfather and Bernard and I endured distilling bay oil to make an honest living. I reflected on the value of education and the transcendence and opportunity that occurs with that process. I reflected on the fact that I was so far away from that distillery in nautical miles and in reality as well.
Last week my American born children who are growing under far different circumstances than I grew up under sent me a video of a bay oil distillery they visited in Riviere Cyrique. I was pleased and humbled and vividly remembered the hard working days and nights nostalgically with Papa and Bernard earning a living the old fashion way.