Frenchy Cannoli thought hashish should be treated like fine wine


MANY, MANY times in the early 1980s, in the Parvati Valley in the foothills of the Himalayas, a young man wandered slowly through a thicket of wild cannabis plants. As he went he removed the fan leaves from each plant and caressed the small green flowers, the resin glands. On his palm they left a thin layer, clear at first, then thickening and darkening until he could press the sticky brown mass with his thumb, and snap it off. He did not hurry. This was a communion between man and plant, a divine thing. The terpenes the flowers released were so intense that they almost overwhelmed him; his body seemed to float in the very essence of the valley. He could well believe that cannabis was born in a drop of the elixir of life, shaken down when the gods and the demons were struggling to create it.

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So the locals said. But one look at this young man—his gangliness, and especially the whiteness of his skin—showed that he was not one of them. He was a Frenchman, brought up in Nice, and destined for a nine-to-five life before, on his 18th birthday, he ran away. His head was full of Marco Polo, Lawrence of Arabia and wild, tripping tales of survival in hard places. Now it was he who was wearing native clothes and living on society’s margins, in a shack at the mouth of a cave. He was searching for the best hashish ever made, and he had found it in this valley, where the cannabis plants were protected by the beautiful goddess Parvati: charas, or Indian hashish, harvested as humans had probably done since the glimmering dawn of time.

What he absorbed there, in the seven or eight seasons he spent stroking and smoking the resinous flowers, turned him into a master of hashish. It was not a skill he could easily use back in so-called civilisation. First in Japan, then in California, hashish was still a scary and dangerous pleasure, one he hid from everyone except his dealer and his wife. It took the legalisation of cannabis in California for medical use in 1996, and for recreational use in 2016, to bring his passion and expertise as a hashishin into public view.

At first he sold his hashish only to Californian dispensaries. Then in looser times, in seminars, workshops and videos and in gravelly French tones, he showed all “home gardeners” how to make it properly. This was not by violent extraction but by gently sieving the cured flowers, pressing and rolling them with a bottle of boiling water to release their resin, then shaping it, like a pastry chef, into cannoli. Hence his ganja name. With much folding and pressing he could also make giant hashish balls, sleek and brown as bread, to show off with artist’s pride. In video interviews he would writhe with delight as he described the tiny resin samples he had brought along, before both parties disappeared in ecstatic clouds of smoke. The interviewer might get noisy then, gasping “Holy Moly!” and needing to take a break; but he would stay serious, almost impassive, letting his mouth fill with the smoke, savouring each complexity and every moment.

He might have been drinking wine. The comparison was new but, to a Frenchman, obvious. Like vines, cannabis plants reflected their terroir; the tiniest variations in life-giving soil and life-shaping climate produced different terpenes, hence different strains. (He once found a patch in a field of wild strawberries, with a unique berry aroma; another, under nut bushes, tasted of nuts; each cultivar he used for hashish swept him off to a new reality.) In America’s best cannabis country, the Emerald Triangle of northern California, the rolling hills produced dozens of strains. Each had been nurtured, like a vineyard, by the love and unhurried dedication of three generations of small, often hippie, farmers. To his mind, the Triangle was ripe for the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), which tied a wine officially to its place by reputation, genetics and traditional ways of work. There was no reason why Purple Kush, Blackwater, Desert Diesel and Trainwreck should not attract the same reverence as a Montrachet or a Châteauneuf du Pape.

He reinforced the thought in two ways. First he made sure his own brand of hashish, marketed as Frenchy Cannoli 100% Ouh La La, looked as exclusive as fine wine. His best resin came in small black jars; his Royal Nepalese Temple Balls, a revival of a lost art, nestled in them singly like glossy dark-brown pearls. The lids were stamped, in the manner of Cognac, with V.S.O.P., for Very Special Olde Press. His second tactic was to produce a scoring system by which strains could be graded for, among other things, appearance, stability, smoothness, bouquet, intensity and sheer pleasure, turning unruly aficionados into solemn connoisseurs.

The AOC idea caught on, but slowly and not officially. It was hard to get the classification accurate enough. During prohibition, for almost 100 years, the farmers of the Triangle had learned to keep their methods secret, much like the Indian farmers he knew. They had no records to prove legacy or constancy, and disliked the sound of any regulation. Even legalisation was a threat, because it might force down the price. He wanted to protect and promote them by making the Triangle the Bordeaux or Champagne of hashish; but they were wary.

He was on surer ground when he compared hashish to wine as another gift of the gods. For so it was, and as he lit up he would often dedicate the smoke and the joy to Shiva. The cannabis plant, he claimed, could remove toxins, radioactivity, pesticides and solvents from the planet. It was also powerful medicine, as governments now realised and as he knew from experience. Hashish had soothed the traumas of his childhood and filled him with immense, positive energy—energy to become its chief ambassador.

The long stigma of smoking it still stayed with him. But eventually even that would heal. In the Parvati Valley he had once cut his index finger to the bone, hampering his apprenticeship. But he had dressed it with the best salve he knew, and the only sort he had: white hashish ashes from a chillum pipe, wrapped round with a rolling paper. And then he had set off again on his wanderings, to caress the waiting flowers.

This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the headline “The weed of paradise”



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