* Striking oils

Somewhere in the netherlands of Chainat Province, it’s early November, the ragged end of the rainy season and unseasonably cold. In heavy cloth pants and a woolen jacket buttoned up to the neck, Swai Rodtavorn is primed for the 22-degree chill. She stomps in flip-flops through an overgrown tangle of 100 trees, both coconut palms and kaffir lime, the latter better known here as makruut. “This is the worst season for makruut,” she huffs. Actually, there are plenty of the shiny double-winged green leaves that she can sell in nearby fresh markets for use in soups, curries and stir-fried food.


But she’s talking about the fruit. She makes a beeline for a laden tree. Since this mature tree is five years old, the lowest branches are higher than our heads. She needs long-handled clippers to cut one of the thorny branches. Citrus hystrix is one homely fruit. The size of a handball, it has the lumpy wrinkled surface of a shrunken green brain. No Thai will confess to eating it. It’s too bitter and “strong” smelling.


Makruut has other virtues. The juice is a venerable ingredient in Thai shampoo. It’s said to blacken the hair and prevent dandruff. While it takes a good three years before a makruut tree bears fruit, it then can be harvested three or four times a year, yielding a total of 500 pieces of fruit. In ten years, a single tree might produce up to 3,000 pieces of fruit each year. Makruut is an easy-care crop, too. Citronellal, a chemical also found in lemongrass, is a natural insecticide that repels most pests.

Swai grows a few makruut herself, but it’s her ten years as a broker and crew boss that qualify her to be the Makruut Queen of the Central Plains. “Big or small, I know every makruut orchard in the region,” she claims. With her mobile phone and crew of seven women and three men, she makes the rounds by pick-up trucks all year round. A day of shaking and cutting branches, picking and gathering often begins at 4 am and ends at 9 pm. A bag of fruit may weigh 30 kilos. Leaves and branches weigh 11 kilos.

“We can pick 1,000 kilos in a day,”  says the Makruut Queen. For a long day’s work, the men earn 200 baht ($5) and the women, 150 baht. The worst part of the job is mosquitoes. “It’s hard work,” she concludes, “but I’ll stick with makruut. It’s still the best thing I’ve found. There aren’t many other people doing this. It’s putting my son and daughter through university.”


A ton of makruut sounds like a load, but the distilled fruit only produces 10 kiloliters of oil. One ton of makruut leaves yields 5 kilos. A ton of lemongrass produces less than 1 kilo. The steam distillation process begins on the second-story platform of an open-air structure at Thai-China Flavours and Fragrances Co. (TCCF) factory.


From here, there’s a vista of low trees and the uninhabited countryside of Ayutthaya Province. On the factory grounds are plots of lemongrass and experimental groves of frangipani, ylang ylang and orchids.


On the platform, great piles of plant material are heaved by hand into a huge vat, which is injected with boiling water. After three hours or so (or eight hours for sliced makruut fruit) the steam passes through the plants, carrying the oil as it rises and flows into a smaller condenser tank. As the steam liquefies, the oil floats to the top of the water. Then, over many hours, the oil drips into a Florentine flask, a clear 1-liter glass jar. That’s your essential oil: two tons of it will be enough to scent 20 million bottles of shampoo.


Because of their uses in aromatherapy, essential oils have acquired talismanic connotations in the past decade. But the term actually refers to highly concentrated substances extracted from flowers, leaves, stalks, fruits, roots and resins of about 1,000 plants. For hundreds of years, they’ve been used alone or blended to flavor food or create fragrances. In this century, synthetic chemical substitutes have replicated all of them and then some. Now in its eighth year, TCCF makes many of these as well.


The company and, for that matter, the new Thai industry of extracting and processing flavors and fragrances, is the brainchild of Managing Director Sathaporn Kietthanakorn, an exuberant sixty-five-year-old. The seed of the idea was planted in Sathaporn’s mind way back in the 1950s, when he was studying agriculture in China, his great-grandfather’s homeland. The new People’s Republic was striving to replace imports by building its own fragrance and flavor industry. “Why not Thailand?” he thought.


When he returned home in the late 1950s, “Everyone here told me that making cars and electronic appliances was high technology, the way to develop the country!” Sathaporn says with the last laugh. So he ended up working for decades in concrete and fuel transport businesses. Opportunities opened up, slowly, in the 1980s when Thai relations with China warmed up. Sathaporn discovered that an old schoolmate had risen to high rank in the Chinese state agricultural industry. With this official greasing the wheels, a 15-member Chinese team sampled Thailand’s plants in 1987 and came away impressed.


There were still many bureaucratic hurdles to leap in Thailand. Sathaporn had to convince the Board of Investment that fragrances weren’t luxury products. Then, since agriculture is a protected industry, exceptions had to be wangled to allow foreign investment, exempt import duties and enable the first eight Chinese experts to work here. Finally, Guangzhou’s Bai Hua Flavours and Fragrance Factory supplied an entire turnkey factory and took a 40 percent stake. With Sathaporn and friends holding the remaining shares, TCCF launched as China’s first joint venture in Thailand in 1993.


TCCF now has annual sales of $1.6 million. Its ingredients can be found in scores of well-known products here, including soap, talcum powder, fish sauce, candy and coconut ice cream. And the bureaucrats are encouraging other Thai companies to enter the field. The country needs to pare an import bill for flavors and fragrances that still amounts to $40 million each year, says Dr. Chachanat Thebtaranonth, vice-president of the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA).


“It’s a very good industry for Thailand,” she continues. “Sixty percent of our people are still in the agricultural sector and most of their products don’t have added value. For the farmer, now there are more alternatives. More parts of the plant are used. How much lemongrass can he sell in the fresh market? And the prices go up and down. TCCF buys by the ton and there’s a steady price a farmer can fetch.”


TCCF is now taking another step up the value-added tier, say Dr. Chachanat and Sathaporn, by offering more formulation services. The Chinese experts have imparted the recipes for about 60 standard products. But a perfumer needs to be permanently on hand if a customer seeks, say, a fresher, cleaner fabric softener or a softer, rosier hand lotion. To that end, NSTDA helped TCCF pay the salary of a veteran British perfumer, Stephen Dowthwaite.


Part chemists, part artists, perfumers are a finicky breed and a mite snobbish. There are fewer than 1,000 in the world. Dowthwaite hopes to find a Thai apprentice. It typically takes seven years to learn to distinguish thousands of scents, but the most important quality is the will, he says … Ω


Although this is best classified as a business story, it was published in Sawasdee, the inflight magazine of Thai Airways, back when it paid real  money.

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