WHEN you behold a bottle of Jamu, it evokes all that is good with the world: sunshine, healthfulness and tropical ingredients.
Peeking from behind the bottle may well be the equally sunny face of Clovis Ferguson, always smiling, along with her business partner, Ruth Calder-Potts. Together they are MuTonics, the brand behind this mysterious drink, a recipe with its origins in Indonesia, and the origins of its makers stem from two of the finest artisan food dynasties in Ireland.
Clovis, of the West Cork Gubbeen Fergusons, and Ruth, of the Kilkenny Highbank Orchard Calder-Potts, met only in 2017 by chance over a market stall in Schull.
“Ruth’s background is in acting, and she was in Schull for the Fastnet Film Festival. I was working the Gubbeen market stall and had some bottles of Jamu for sale. Ruth saw it and was amazed that the buzz about turmeric had reached West Cork!” said Clovis.
“She bought a couple of bottles, and rang me about a week later and said if I ever wanted someone to assist with distribution or to help spread the word that she was super-interested.”
But what is Jamu? What it definitely is not is a juice! This is important, because for all the world it could be orange or mango juice and it looks like it should be sweet, but it isn’t.
It is an infusion of turmeric, ginger, tamarind, lemongrass, cinnamon, black pepper, lemon, Atlantic sea salt and West Cork honey. It is earthy, warming, spicy and zesty and tastes like it’s doing you good.
“I was still making Jamu on my kitchen stove at that point, and selling it at our local farmer’s market,” said Clovis. “But the more I was making, the more it was hitting with people, little sparks started flying and the feedback was great!”
Clovis started making Jamu for a dear friend who had been diagnosed with early onset rheumatoid arthritis.
“I had heard that with diet change a good part of the symptoms of arthritis could be controlled and I’ve always believed that food is medicine. I tried Jamu for the first time in London and it was just WOW! I thought it was amazing and wondered if I could make my own, so I researched how to make it.
“It’s an Indonesian recipe, but there are hundreds of variations on it to treat all kinds of ailments, boost immunity or even to help with depression. Families would use it as a medicine, and each household would have their own recipe passed down through generations.
“MuTonics Jamu is most similar to Jamu Kunyit Asam, which must be made with Turmeric, Tamarind and Ginger. There also has to be black pepper because our bodies can’t absorb the health properties of turmeric without it, and it amplifies the benefits of turmeric a hundred times over.”
The bright yellow bottles of Jamu drew people into the market stall.
“No-one could walk past the bottle without picking it up. All kinds of people were interested in what it was and asking questions. I offered tasters because Jamu needs to be introduced to people and explained.
“My favourite story is of an older lady who was told by her doctor to have more turmeric in her diet.
She’d heard about Jamu and she came to the stall to try it. I gave her a little shot glass of it, she drank it, said “Oh my God… I’ll take two bottles!” Now she’s back every week! She really likes it and misses it when she doesn’t have any.”
Unlike other turmeric-based drinks on the market, Jamu isn’t sweetened with juice.
“Its flavours are very natural and raw; the balance of honey, cinnamon and lemon naturally sweetens and without them Jamu would be too bitter and hot. It’s a whole food, has substance to it and needs to be shaken before drinking. It’s woody, bitter and earthy; the flavours come from spices rather than sugars.”
All the ingredients, except for Tamarind, are certified organic. The process of making it involves a gentle infusion over heat to extract all the goodness from the turmeric.
“There’s an assumption that by heating we are boiling out all the goodness, but turmeric needs to be heated to extract the curcumin and to harness its anti-inflammatory properties.”
Things were going well, and the time seemed right to go for it; to take the risk and see where it might lead. MuTonics was born.
A lease was signed to take over the old Good Things Cookery School kitchen space in Durrus, but things came to an abrupt halt. Ask any food producer what the biggest challenge is in bringing a product to market, and many will say ‘labelling’.
“Our biggest stumbling block was use of the term ‘tonic’ — something that is absolutely forbidden on food labelling. From that point on we were facing an uphill battle to prove what Jamu was, and to stand by the perceived health claims of the drink. Eventually I stood back and realised that I didn’t actually want to make health claims — I’m banking on people knowing the benefits of turmeric themselves.
“It’s an honest product but I don’t want to be responsible for someone not getting better, so the more I thought about it the happier I was not to make any health claims.
“It was a blow, and the worst thing was the amount of time we lost trying to correct everything. It took from February to almost September 2018 to get back on track. We had invested a lot of money: leasing the kitchen, product testing and getting labels printed, but then we were just faced with a lot of people telling us ‘No’.”
Despite it all, Clovis remains positive about the experience.
“People know about good ingredients. The fact that Jamu is flying off the shelves is a validation of that. People are buying it because they like it and it makes them feel good!
“What we are doing, what Jamu is, is different and unique and doesn’t really fit neatly into a box.
“We realise that we have to work doubly hard to get Jamu out there, but it inspires conversation and I do a lot of in-store tastings because of that.
“But I love doing them — I’m happy to be known as the Jamu lady of West Cork!”
Next on the horizon for MuTonics is the production of a heritage recipe also known as The Hay Makers Punch.
“It’s an old drink, like nature’s Gatorade! It’s a thirst quencher made from Apple Cider Vinegar, water, molasses and ginger and then carbonated.”
Still in development, it will be an easy drinking refresher, hopefully hitting the shelves around the end of summer ’19.
HOW TO JAMU...
MuTonics have found their customers to be inventive when it comes to their daily dose of Jamu.
Take it as a beneficial morning ritual or an immunity boost; or use it to make Golden Milk, Hot Jamu with honey for a longer drink with ginger, or a turmeric latte.
Stockists nationwide, including seven across Cork. See www.mutonics.com
Next in the series we chat to April Danann.