As it always is with almost all new materials, they’d been well known before we were born. Nowadays we only rediscover or try to imitate the ones that were once the best tools for the job. Take a look for example into the mysterious story of amadou.
What is actually amadou?
The name originates in the middle French language (“*amadouer”), meaning as a verb “to coarse, to lure, to caress” and, as a noun, having two meanings: the first one “lure“, or “bait”, the second one “tinder, kindling, touchwood, spunk“. If you wonder what “kindling” means, it’s a name for a small piece of wood or small twig used to start a fire. “Spunk” is another name denoting a combination of the two words “spark” and “funk”, having its roots in the Middle Ages English around 1530.
This already is pretty interesting, hmm? Regardless of the name, (we wondered) how did amadou get to us and when and how was it used?
Amadou is won out of a specific layer of the beech tinder, “Fomes fomentarius”, also named “Horseshoe fungus”. Depending on its quality, it should have a smooth touch, similar to velvet or chamois leather.
What history reveals
One of the most interesting finds of the recent years is Ötzi. A very well-known figure, at least among researchers. He’s the best preserved mummified hunter from 5300 B.C., discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991. Being a hunter and an explorer, he carried an impressive toolkit with him. Among the items discovered, there were also two interesting objects: one of them was the belt and the other one the pouch, containing for the most part a black mass, later identified as tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius). The fungus, part of a prehistoric lighter, contained traces of iron pyrite. When struck against flint, iron pyrite nodules produce a shower of sparks. When the sparks land on a bed of fluffy tinder fungus, the fungus begins to glow and can be used to kindle a fire. In his backpack Ötzi also carried some pieces of amadou, used probably as medicine, to stop bleedings. The birch-bark containers were used to carry the alighted embers in order to be able to start a fire quickly. And just for the record, this happened more than 5300 years ago!
So we know now that people in the Neolithic harvested and processed Fomes fomentarius in order to get two different types of products: one is the tinder used to light fires, the other one is the thicker amadou used for stopping a bleeding or for other medicinal purposes.
Traces of amadou through ancient history
Amadou in the ancient Greece was mentioned by Hippocrates as a hemostatic agent, used in wound cauterization and wound dressing, stopping the bleedings very efficiently. It was used in ancient Greece also by barbers. Through the ages, it had been used to treat hemorrhoids and bladder dysfunctions. The ancient Indians used it as a laxative and in China it was used to treat different types of cancer.
Amadou in the Middle Ages
In Europe it was mostly used to ignite fires, in combination with flint, but in Romania for example it was also used to produce hats or other artisanal objects.
The processed amadou had also been used as a plaster for wound dressing and hemostasis (stopping of bleeding), obviously before the modern sticking plaster was invented. I am still amazed as a surgeon when I use during my surgeries plasters with hemostatic effect that actually are a modern version of the product used extensively for thousands of years.
Moreover, amadou was considered to have a disinfecting, anti-inflammatory effect, accelerating blood coagulation according to popular traditions. Dentists used it extensively before cotton in order to stop the bleeding after tooth extractions.
In Germany, in the Middle Ages, somebody came up with the idea to make the amadou even more flammable. And that was by saturating the pieces of amadou with Potassium nitrate, the so-called “Salt Peter”. The material for gaining “Salt Peter” was the soiled straws from the stable heaps. That is where the urea contained in urine was transformed through bacterial decomposition into calcium nitrate.
Adding water and filtering the mixture of straws and urine through ashes – containing potassium carbonate – a final solution rich in nitrates was obtained.
The amadou was soaked in this solution and let to dry, gaining a highly inflammable tinder. This is where the false idea that urine needs to be used in order to produce high quality amadou.
It was also used through Europe by bee keepers, creating a thick smoke when set on fire in order to calm the bee swarms or during the mating and migration times of the bees.
When or who exactly started using amadou in order to dry flies while fly fishing, remains a mystery. Fact is that amadou was readily available in drugstores until 50-60 years ago, making it with time an indispensable tool for the passionate fly fisherman.
It was indeed the magic tool that managed within seconds to regain floatability of a soaked fly.
Fly fishermen in England and France were using it and it was considered an indispensable piece of gear. It still is, but now we have a problem. It’s gone. Or at least it was. For more than 50 years, amadou is not available anymore in the drugstores, and because of the lack of request in the pharmaceutical industry, the processing methods slowly disappeared.
Here and there you can find different articles online or in old fly fishing magazines about how to prepare the mother of all dry patches, the original amadou. Unfortunately, all these methods are only partially described or lead you, after a frustrating work of couple of months, while waiting patiently for the conk to be ready for processing, to – in our opinion – a very poor quality amadou.
As with all other good stuff that’s gone, man tried to find substitutes.
There are hundreds of fly driers on the market today, 99% from them using chemicals in solid or fluid form, in order to regain the floatability of the flies. Within years we tried most of them, finding some good, some bad and some useless. We also went like many other fly fishermen through: the corner of your t-shirt, absorbing towels, microfiber clothes and patches, silicate powder, silicone gel, fancy plastic tubes with powder and brushes small enough for my wife to use them as her makeup kit.
Using all sorts of chemicals in order to keep your flies dry will alter them in the process, loss of color or fragility of the barbs occurring after little use. Applying anything else on CDC except some drops of CDC oil rubbed between your fingers will destroy your CDC fly. But in order to be able to apply CDC oil you need to dry the fly first.
In time we got frustrated after spending a lot of money on products that partially work and need to get replaced every 2 months. We calculated for ourselves costs of over 90 euros/year in materials to keep our flies dry, and all of them were only partially working.
At one point in our fly fishing lives we started searching for something better. And we discovered the amadou. Or the amadou that was and still is commercially available. We bought of course at least 5 different brands, from the cheapest to the most expensive one. And we discovered that the most expensive one was actually working pretty well. Better than the chemicals and imitations we’ve used so far.
After one or two years, the problem with the amadou was that it started to lose its properties and slowly shrink in size (thickness). Still it was better to have one patch on your vest, comparing it with the other stuff: no bottles, no brushes, no b…shit, just cast, rinse, press and there it was, a perfectly dried fly again.
We were a family of happy fly fishermen, keeping our flies dry J while using what was best working for us. But as Forrest Gump said, “Life (is) like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
So on a fly fishing trip 7 years ago in the heart of Transylvania, while walking along the river bank in a small village, I met a local fisherman wearing a pale brown hat with beautiful feathers on the brim. As we started talking about the fishing times as he was young, I took a glance at his hat and my heart started racing. This was not possible. I mean really. This was absolutely impossible to be true. The whole hat was made out of a huge piece of the finest amadou I had ever laid my hands on. I kindly asked him to let me take a look at it for a moment and in my hands was the epitome of amadou. It was better than everything I’d seen. More than 1 cm thick, light as air, before me stood the answer to my long quest in finding the best tool for the job.
If there would be a scale to define amadou quality, the most expensive patch you can buy on the market today would be referred to as Bronze… this one is Platinum. I mean it really doesn’t get any better.
After a long story and an exciting discovery adventure we managed to find out about the source of the hat and about the around 7 families left in Europe that still know the methods of producing this kind of quality amadou. We sourced as much as we could and we started experimenting. The years went by and with time, our goal was to produce the most efficient fly drying patch we could, one that would last a lifetime. Or at least try to.