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The Found Art of the Hashishin

A small, middle-aged man exits the Civic Center BART station and steps into an unseasonably rainy San Francisco summer afternoon. As he heads south toward Mission Street, carrying an oblong bundle wrapped in a black plastic garbage bag, he draws hardly a second glance from passers-by despite a striking appearance: custom Converse sneakers, acid-washed jeans, a tailored olive-drab trench coat, and facial features — a prominent nose and outsize ears, which point ever so slightly at the tips — that magnify an
elfin look.

At his destination a few blocks away, a collection of young men in flat-brimmed caps and expensive hooded sweatshirts — the uniform of savvy Bay Area cannabis consumers — is already in place, and eagerly awaiting his arrival.

They are his audience. In a few minutes, they will hang on every word he utters, in a French accent heavier than hollandaise sauce, about how to produce a cannabis product — using little more than a bowl, a sifter, their hands, and some heat — that, for some consumers, puts the results of a priceless, high-tech extractor machine to shame.

This is Frenchy Cannoli. He’s been making hash for over 40 of his roughly 58 years — or, to be more precise, for over 40 years he has learned, practiced, and come close to perfecting an ancient style of hash-making that is virtually unknown and unseen in today’s multibillion dollar medical cannabis market.

At least for now. As high-potency cannabis extracts that rely on solvents like butane or costly C02 extraction continue to take over the cannabis market, there is a small but growing demand for cannabis produced in a different way. In a natural way, with water the only solvent, with a method that is thousands of years old.

As Frenchy strides into the room and makes his arrival, there’s an audible hush among the soon-to-be spectators. He unpacks the bag and reveals a large metal kitchen bowl, a large wooden hoop of the kind used to make quilts, and a piece of nylon mesh with tiny screens.

“This,” he proclaims, “is a hash factory.”

For the next 40 minutes, the in-the-know crew stands and watches raptly as Frenchy gently spreads several shopping bags’ worth of cannabis trim and small buds over the screen. Plant material is discarded while a fine, yellowish-green dust collects in the bowl. Those are the plant’s trichomes, the tiny resinous heads and stalks that contain the active ingredients in cannabis: the cannabinoids as well as the terpenes, the molecules that determine how a plant smells.

If the weed fiends here were looking for a magic secret, they’ll go home disappointed.

This humble gear is all you need to produce top-of-the-line hash that simply blows the high-tech stuff — wax, CO2 oil, shatter, all of it — out of the water, according to some experts.

“Frenchy’s hash, in terms of flavor and nose, is unmatched by anyone out there,” says Nick Smilgys, cofounder of farm-to-table cannabis startup Flow Kana and an Emerald Cup competition judge. “The notes that his extractions bring out are unlike anything that you would ever smell or taste in cannabis.”

Frenchy’s craftsmanship has made him a celebrity in the cannabis world, a position of prominence he’s achieved thanks to how-to videos on YouTube, endless Q&As he answers on message boards, and a steady stream of the result — large, dark hunks of hash rolled into loaves or flattened and fashioned into his signature “cannolis” — posted on Instagram, where he’s amassed almost 10,000 followers in less than seven months. He’s a draw at cannabis cups, and he has begun hosting hash-making seminars in Los Angeles and the Bay Area that cost hundreds of dollars to attend, and promptly sell out.

And all this is happening less than five years after he could barely give his pressed hash away.

BIRTH OF A HASHISHIN

Frenchy’s story begins millennia before he was born, well before cannabis become known to the Western world.

The cannabis plant is believed to be native to Himalayan valleys in the far north of India, near the Pakistani border. It was here that ancient conqueror Alexander the Great’s invasion of India halted. Legend says some of his soldiers stayed on. Some of their descendants may live today in places like Malana, an isolated village in Himachal Pradesh province at 10,000 feet surrounded by cannabis fields. This is where some of the most-prized hash in Asia, called Malana cream, is made.

The Pavati Valley in India, where Frenchy learned and honed his craft. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Pavati Valley in India, where Frenchy learned and honed his craft. (Wikimedia Commons)

Here, the fruits of the harvest are not trimmed and cured before smoking in the flower form familiar to American consumers. Instead, just-cut flowering buds are rolled in harvesters’ hands, for hours at a time, in order to collect the sticky resin into
small balls. Often, just a few grams’ yield are the fruits of a day’s labor.

(For Californians, the closest analogue may be the “finger hash” that Humboldt and Mendocino trimmers can scrape from their digits after a day’s work).

Eventually, there’s enough hash to roll into a larger ball, or perhaps a long strand that resembles a length of clay. Hash made and shaped in this way is called “charas,” and has been used medicinally and religiously for thousands of years. (Only in the 1980s was charas declared illegal in India, at the insistence of the United States).

This is the hash-making method Frenchy learned from a series of teachers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, India, and Morocco, an apprenticeship that happened almost by accident.

In Europe, cannabis is rarely seen in the flower form familiar to Americans. It’s almost all hash, in blocks or bricks smuggled from Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, or Turkey. This was the cannabis Frenchy first smoked
as a 14-year old living in the French Riviera.

By the age of 18, he’d left France to bounce around the world as a pot-smoking nomad. “For 20 years, I traveled,” he says.

One season, he ended up in the Parvati Valley in India, not far from Malana. Hash drew him there, but becoming a hashish student was not on his mind.

“I was not there to learn,” he says in a recent interview, in between drags of a massive American Spirit tobacco-and-hash spliff. “I was there to make my stash for the year. I was a bum. I would go for four months to make my stash and then go to smoke it on the beach.”

But after spells relaxing in
Goa or in Thailand, Frenchy would return to the cold and snow in the mountains. And he kept coming back.

“These people,” he says, “they really, really knew their shit.”

He ended up spending eight seasons in the Parvati Valley, living in caves and hanging around long enough for his hosts to trust him and show him their secret.

Which is not much of a secret at all — just a lot of hard work.

PRESS TO ACTIVATE

He is fond of saying that a hash-maker needs only two things: “the tool, and the product.” The trick is knowing what
to do with both, and knowing that the starting material is
high quality.

Frenchy’s method breaks with contemporary style in several ways. Forget terms like “live resin” and “fresh frozen.” The only solvent he uses is cold water. He does not freeze the cannabis trim and small buds he uses before the extraction begins. He prefers the outdoor cannabis grown from Mendocino County-based Aficionado Seeds’ genetics.
And he makes what he calls
“full spectrum hash.”

In hash-making, the product is screened through mesh of various sizes. Most hash bag kits have sizes that range from 220 microns on the high end to 25 microns on the low end. Many hash makers discard the end result from high or low microns, or keep the results from different microns separate. Frenchy uses most of it all, and combines everything.

Most important could be the pressing. With the hash under a plastic turkey bag, Frenchy rolls a wine bottle full of just-boiled water over it. Pressing does more than just bind the extracted resin into a waxy final product that can be rolled. Like the hand-rubbers in India, the pressing begins the process of decarboxylation, when cannabis’s psychoactive properties are released by the application of heat.

Somehow, more of the cannabis plant’s two essential components — the cannabinoids and the terpenes — are captured this way than in other methods.

The finished product; a few of the prized hash cannolis. (Courtesy photo)

The finished product; a few of the prized hash cannolis. (Courtesy photo)

After the pressing, the hash balls, sticks, or cannolis are aged and cured in a way similar to how trimmed flower is cured, under similar cool and dry conditions. Sometimes hash is cured for four to eight weeks, other times it is cured for as long as a year. The oldest hash Frenchy has ever smoked, he says, was 10 years old.

“It’s got a body that just fills up your mouth,” he says. “This, this flavor, it cakes your mouth. And then behind you have all the level of terpenes.”

Frenchy’s wandering days ended with the birth of his daughter. He relocated to the Bay Area with his wife so that their daughter could attend school right around the time when Prop. 215 passed in 1996. He still made hash in the classic way, but the medical cannabis market had no interest.

“Nobody wanted my product,” he says. “Nobody wanted pressed hash.”

Unlike in Europe, where hash is standard, hash never told hold in the same way in America as cannabis became the Western world’s favorite illicit drug. When veterans of the 1960s and 1970s tell stories of Lebanese blond or Afghani hash, the latter was likely the closest most
California consumers came
to charas.

This explains why Frenchy found himself trying to press his pressed hash on people with limited success. Eventually, he did what any confident salesman would do: He gave it away.

Sure enough, the people who tried it came back. Some of them included buyers at dispensaries, like San Francisco’s SPARC and Buds and Roses in Los Angeles. Slowly but surely, a modern-day cannabis celebrity was born.

GUILD BUILDING

The exact science of how Frenchy’s product works and tastes the way it does is lost. Or more accurately, it was never found at all. The thousands of years of charas-making tradition were neither developed nor analyzed in a laboratory setting.

But it’s hard to argue with convictions as strong and with a following as devoted as Frenchy’s. He has disciples now. They, like him, are convinced that something essential in the cannabis plant is lost with a butane extraction and with rough treatment. Science may yet prove them right.

Going forward, Frenchy hopes to preserve this knowledge — and capture even more. As befits his heritage, he is interested in
devising a classification system for California cannabis that’s similar to the AOC system for French wine.

He’s also been active with the Emerald Growers Association, working to create a “hash-makers’ guild” — and to do what he can to preserve the outdoor cannabis growing tradition in Northern California.

As the state and the country move towards legal recreational cannabis, Frenchy is imparting a legacy: a tradition, imported from remote mountain villagers, that will be a part of modern-day commercial activity. But he deflects the credit, and defers to the source.

“It’s the most incredible product in the entire fucking plant kingdom,” he says. “And we are lucky to work with it.”