I’ve never quite forgotten the smell of burning coconuts; during my travels in some of Vanuatu’s remote islands, where villages were installed with community furnaces, it was the incinerating copra that I detected in the air: an intoxicating, caramelising sweetness, sticking to my nostrils like molten honey.
There was no such aroma in the coconut workshop at The Farm.
The “oil of life”, as it was dubbed at the wellbeing retreat near Lipa City, The Philippines, was harvested from organic coconut fruits grown within the jungle enclosure. Yet theirs was a cold-press technique – barring the motor oil fuelling automated machinery, and the tropical temperatures keeping the glass box shed stifled, there wasn’t a hint of heat source facilitating the manufacture.
There weren’t many pairs of hands on the job either.
One lone producer guided me through the entire process.
Hacking open their hard shell crudely with a machete – wouldn’t you fret about his fingers? – he drained the coconuts of their translucent juice, or coconut water, which was sieved and reserved.
“Can you see the difference?”
But then, I cheated; my tenure in the South Pacific had taught me much about the maturity of coconuts: the riper fruits sprout from within, which deplete the nutrition content and render it inferior in quality. It was then that the production underwent its craft selection: the stemming, lesser-deemed fruits made the bulk of basic, ordinary-graded coconut oil, while the younger, purer variety would be further refined to premium virgin coconut oil.
Either way, the coconut needed mincing – the only motorised machine-aided step.
Pressed against the rotating blades inside an open barrel, the flesh was rapidly shredded off the coconuts’ interior. I found myself gritting my teeth again; even though he manoeuvred as skilfully as to match the speediness, the finger worry was back.
He stopped short of a dozen halves to continue with the demonstration – batches of 20 to 25 coconuts at a time is the norm, which yields one litre of the end product. The meat garnered, he enveloped them in a parcel of muslin cloth and placed it under the hydraulic press.
As pressure multiplied, white trickles streamed out of the compression point and down the tray, cascading into the collection bucket below.
The craftsman filled a half shell with the fluid; try, he insisted. It’s indeed one thing I’d missed: tasting coconut cream from where it fell off the tree, beside where it was juiced.
Once the last droplets oozed out and were captured, he mixed the squashed flesh with the reserved coconut water – roughly three kilograms of meat to two litres of water – and returned it to the contraption for a second compression – until he harnessed every bit of moisture.
And there terminated the heavy manual labour – the rest was entrusted to the device of gravity. And time.
He brought me to the next chamber, a cooler cavity dotted with the same buckets he used to capture the coconut contents; except, unlike the emulsified, monochromic fluid straight out of the press, the containers showed the separation in progress.
Inside the more ‘juvenile’ buckets, the room-temperature liquids detaches from the lighter solid particles, which floated above; under the more prolonged fermentation period, lasting up to 16 hours, the heavier fluid was almost completely dislodged from the surface precipitation and sank to the bottom. Between the two layers lied the intermedium: a considerably thin strata of coconut oil, to be extracted with a pipette.
To refine this oil and reach ‘virgin’-grade purity, it underwent five further filtrations through muslin cloth to sieve out remaining impurities.
And on the seventh day, as numeric as the biblical genesis, the final product was conceived and ready for packaging.
The Farm at San Benito, at the time of my visit, manufactured coconut oil mostly for its internal consumption: at its spa facility for massage treatments; to be processed into soap infusions in the same workshop; for cooking in the resort’s vegan kitchen; as part of its bathroom amenities, for anything from oil pulling to hair conditioning – it was effective enough when I applied it to my legs to ease the itch from mosquito bites. It was also sold in The Farm’s boutique and selected outlets in Manila.
But, naturally, I was more curious about its ingestion – and how beneficial it could potentially be.
Flavour-wise, it is its own distinctive taste I’d welcome wherever coconut fits in the orchestra of ingredients. And I could obtain it – flavour and oil, albeit in small dosages – as easily in coconut cream.
Whatever advantage, personally, must arise from consuming concentrated coconut oil.
It contains large proportions of lauric acid, which is speculated to increase ‘good’ blood cholesterols – but it’s yet to be confirmed by scientific studies. It has a relatively low smoke point, which doesn’t exactly make it an ideal cooking oil – and if not considering the prison break of belligerent free-radicals, then the pleasurable coconut-y note being eclipsed and vilified by burnt rancidity. It’s not convincing me to actively include it in my lipidic repertoire, but I may fancy a bit of culinary fun with it once in a while, if it’s there.
Though I must admire the cold-press production at The Farm; there was a certain grace about it. Unlike the abrasive and pyrexial brute of coercing oils out of their hosts, turning out end products with industrial efficiency, how the craftsmen in the workshop rendered coconut oil was, comparatively, to whisper to each kernel and plead for it offerings.
Other than some artificial facilitation by the shaver, the oil was extracted purely through the engines of nature: gravity its force, microorganisms its agents, time its currency.