The worst deal in history involving cloves was undoubtedly when the Dutch exchanged a small settlement called New Amsterdam on the eastern seaboard of America for the British-owned island of Surinam, in order to access its spices, especially cloves. But we may have just experienced the second worst.
Spot the picker
We have four large clove trees. They last produced three years ago, they’re a bit temperamental like that, but decided to have another go this year. For those who don’t know, cloves are dried flower buds and you don’t need a degree in horticulture to know that this means there’s a short window of opportunity for picking them. Climbing trees is beyond us and our staff so it was a matter of finding some local lads, and quickly. The first candidates insisted on an hourly rate, irrespective of the amount of cloves picked. I wasn’t having that. I wasn’t born yesterday. Payment by weight or nothing. They decided on the second option and went away. Next day we found three more likely lads who were willing to be paid by the kilo. After some negotiation on price we agreed terms and up the trees they went, all the while watched by Martin sitting comfortably in a nearby chair. Keeping an eye on other people working is one of Martin’s two favourite jobs, the other being driving us to and from Kandy at breakneck speeds, with much jumping on the brakes. He was making sure that they weren’t sneakily throwing large parts of our crop over the boundary fence to their waiting pals. What he wasn’t doing, as he sat listening to his radio, was looking into the sacks to see they were actually full of cloves and not lumps of tree. The three lads duly turned up at our front door with heavy sacks and Martin in tow, armed with a weighing hook borrowed from the chicken farmer next door. The sacks weighed in at some impressive figure and I drew a sharp breath as we shelled out more than twice what I’d expected to pay, and off they went.
We still hadn’t checked the bags, and when we did we found that most of the weight consisted not of cloves but of leaves and twigs. Then I helped carry the sacks out to the back verandah for the cleaning process to begin, and it occurred to me that either I’d grown a lot stronger in the past few hours or the sacks didn’t weigh as much as we’d paid for. So out came the bathroom scales, whose main use hitherto has been checking the extent to which we’ve exceeded our hold baggage allowance on planes. Since you can’t read the scale with a sack of cloves (or a suitcase) on it, the method is to weigh (a) you holding said sack or suitcase (b) you on your own. Then subtract (b) from (a). Simples! And at this point we discovered that the chicken farmer’s scales were inaccurate, and not just by a bit but were registering nearly twice the actual weight. Double whammy. And we would advise the general public against purchases from our neighbour – needless to say, Trading Standards is a concept unknown in Sri Lanka.
The initial cleaning process took four of us two days. After the twigs and leaves have been removed the individual cloves have to be separated (they come in bunches). Only at this point can the drying begin. Our one stroke of luck was unbroken sunshine for the four more days it took to dry them out on the lawn. And of course the drying process shrinks the weight even further. Here are some cloves drying next to a clothes drier For goodness’ sake, please give over with these bloody puns!
Martin, ever the optimist like all Sri Lankans, says that if we hang on to the crop until June rather than selling it now, we’ll get over a thousand rupees a kilo. Which, according to my reckoning, will come to a little less than we paid the charlatans who picked it, not to mention the immense amount of time taken by us and our staff to get the goods into saleable condition. Or maybe I should just invest in clove futures. No, I wasn’t born yesterday, but probably the day before.
Postscript: Coronavirus-related panic buying in Sri Lanka. Panic buying is a cross-cultural phenomenon, stupid idiots not being associated with any one culture. But it can take different forms. In Sri Lanka the items of choice include turmeric and coriander seeds, both of which the locals seem convinced can cure COVID-19. Saves a lot on developing expensive vaccines. doesn’t it? And it occurs to me that if I can convince enough people that cloves also cure the dreaded disease we could turn our misfortune into a goldmine. Sadly, I do retain some principles of decency, though.