Friday 22 August 2014

Aimé Bonpland

Aimé Goujaud was born in August 1773 in La Rochelle the citadel city on the West coast of France. I'm not going to get all certain about the date because it is reported variously as 22nd, 29th and 28th, perhaps with a crowd-sourcing leaning towards towards 22nd (today).  It is a good example of re-churning in the interweb where people cite someone else's guess without thinking too much about it.  It is clearly difficult for most of us to pop round to the Mairie in the city of his birth and ask to look through the birth register.  Somewhere along the way the young chap dropped Goujaud and rebranded himself as Bonpland and this is the name by which he is known today.  He lived in exciting times, not only the French revolution and the long wars of Napoleon but also exciting scientifically.  Bonpland left La Rochelle when he was 17 and went up to stay with his brother who was a trainee doctor.  They hung out with and was taught by the hot scientists of the day including Lamarck and Humboldt. He may even have met Lavoisier before that great man was executed.

In 1799, he joined the exploratory expedition to Central and South America of Alexander von Humboldt and spent the next 5 year collecting plant specimens.  They had hoped to join the amazing scientific & military expedition to Egypt, which turned up the Rosetta Stone, but missed the boat and drifted West to Madrid.  Another expedition was there afoot and in June, they sailed for Spanish South America. Bonpland seems to have been the botanist, leaving everything that moved to Humboldt.  It was virgin territory for European science, and like Darwin a generation later, their parochial European minds must have been blown by the sheer diversity of life surrounding them as they paddled up the Orinoco. They were able to confirm the existence of the Casiquiare canal, a distributary which joins the enormous (880,000 about the size of Ukraine+Belarus) Orinoco and humungous (7 million about the size of the contiguous 48 US states) Amazon drainage basins.  He found, pressed and described 60,000 species of plant.  This was so much data that it took him 8 years to get it into print as the magisterial Plantes equinoxiales, which he co-authored with Humboldt and others.

After ten years in France, he returned to South America with a bee in his bonnet about maté (Ilex Paraguariensis) a shrub related to holly that is rich in caffeine.  He tried to set up a colony/ranchero to cultivate this plant which is consumed in vast quantities in South America as a change from tea and coffee. In Ireland we drink tea till it seeps out of our ears getting through 3.2kg each every year.  But this is in the halfpenny place compared to maté in Uruguay (10kg!! for every man woman and child) or Argentina (5kg pppa).  10kg is about the level consumption of coffee in wired countries like Norway and Netherlands.  Now coffee is best brewed off-the-boil at 88-93 degrees C.  Whereas tea needs to have hotter (> 95C) water to extract its different cocktail of chemicals.  They say that maté needs an even lower temperature of  about 82C.  If your husband keeps making crap coffee, why not get him a thermometer?

My great-uncle Hardress living "alone" with 17 servants in his mansion in King's County in the middle Ireland used to consume quantities of maté and nobody seemed to know where he acquired the habit.  As with the other caffeinated beverages there is an extraordinary amount of ritual associated with consumption of maté - aficionados put the twigs and leaves into a gourd and suck the warm seethe through a perforated silver straw.  If you believe such things, yerba maté yields twice the level of anti-oxidants as green tea. I understand that it is attracting quite a following among the woo-wah people. The Mayo Clinic has some balanced things to say about the risk associations of drinking this possible carcinogen.  Bonpland has a lot to answer for promoting it.

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