Sunday, March 29, 2009

Good from the First Drop

La Granja de Don Eduardo (Salento)

The Coffee Region is a stunningly gorgeous part of Colombia--and bear in mind that Colombia is a pretty outstandingly beautiful country in general. On either side of the highway, precipitously steep mountainsides overflow with a verdant abundance of flora. The countless shades of green run the gamut from the glossy darkness of coffee, to the electric green of sugar cane, to the towering, distant grey-green of the wax palms. Periodically, the forests and fields are broken by small towns, where old men in wool ponchos sip tiny cups of coffee, and where the milkman still makes his morning rounds, flush with fresh milk from the campo. Though the districts of Calderas, Quidio, and Risaralda are now distinct from Antioquia (of which Medellin is the capital), the tiny districts of Eje Cafetero share the paisa heritage of hard work, a quirky vernacular, and radical hospitality.

Arriving in Eje Cafetero intent on visiting farms, I had no farming contacts, no personal transportation, and only the most rudimentary agricultural vocabulary in Spanish. Additionally and unsurprisingly, small-scale organic growers in Colombia are basically devoid of a web presence, so my only means of finding farms was to cross my fingers, put my faith in Colombian hospitality, and begin asking around.

As luck that can only happen in Colombia would have it, my hostel, Plantation House, had just purchased a small granja down the road, which they were converting to organic production of pineapples, moras, oranges, strawberries, bananas, plantains, avocados, and (most importantly) coffee. I took a tour under Freddie Andres, the manager of the farm, and asked approximately 1,000 questions. Freddie, whose personal goal is to own a self-sufficient farm of his own someday, was happy to satisfy my curiosity. He taught me about the biannual coffee harvest and the nutrient needs of coffee, which he fills via home-made compost and purchased organic fertilizer. He pointed out the corridors of native trees that snaked shadily among the coffee plants (so that short-flight birds would be able to move from one side of the farm to the other) and explained that his triangular planting pattern helped minimize erosion and maximize growing space. He extolled the virtues of guadua, a sort of Colombian bamboo, for soil improvement and as a sustainable building material. Guadua, I learned, ought to be harvested during the dead of night under a new moon, as only then will the normally water-filled stalks stand empty for easy cutting. (Several other Colombian farmers have since confirmed this practice for me).

Sadly, I had chosen to visit at precisely the wrong time of year for purchasing coffee or participating in the harvest. The major coffee harvest occurs in September-November, with a smaller second harvest in April-May. As the farm has only recently come back online after years of neglect, the harvests are still small, and holiday guests to Salento had already snatched up all of last season's crop by the time I arrived in early March. The bright red of ripe coffee beans peaked out occasionally from the midst of green clusters, and I plucked one to examine the various husks that stood between me and my pot of joe.

After the ripe beans are harvested, the farmer runs the beans through a mill to remove the red husk, which is similar to the inedible skin of a banana or the rind of an orange. The beans, still encased in a slimy pulp, then soak in a tank of water for 1-4 days, until fermentation breaks down the pulp and the beans are clean. Many farmers allow this fermented coffee-pulp-water to run off into streams; Freddie saves it and uses it as a compost tea for the plants. The beans are then dried in the sun. Once dry, a final papery gray skin can be sloughed off the beans, and they are at last ready for roasting. And I thought making a cappuccino was complicated...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Full Circle

I am a memory junkie. On long bus rides (of which there have been many, as of late), in line at DAS (Colombia's Kafka-esque cross between the CIA and the DMV), or during a lazy afternoon in the Botanical Gardens, I can always count on my memory to entertain me. Like easing into a warm bath, I slowly lower myself into some pleasant past event and wallow in my own private nostalgia-fest. It passes the time quite pleasantly where there is nothing else to do.

I have heard that there is a specific hormone that a woman's body produces after childbirth, which dulls the memory of pain. Apparently, you remember that you were in unholy pain, but you can't remember precisely how it felt. The explains why we are not all only children, I suppose.

Recently, as I was reflecting on this bit of trivia, it occurred to me that the memory of a physical sensation, good or bad, is always at best (or worst) a shade of the actual experience. So while the worst experiences hopefully lose the sharpness of their edges, the good ones gradually become less clear, less intense. The memory of your first love, while quite likely strong enough to bring a smile to your face, doesn't pack the same earth-shaking punch as the actual encounter. You don't need to be flush with hormones for a memory to fade.

Last week I left Colombia and returned to Atlanta. In a frantic few days of packing and visiting, I prepared myself for my migration North, to Caretaker Farm. But before I could leave, I had to revisit Serenbe: to put my hands in the dirt and witness the outline of the season as it comes into focus. It was the kind of true blue dream of sky day that is almost holy in its vividness. I walked between the tables in the greenhouse naming the trays and marveling at the transformation of last years' nervousness into familiarity. I couldn't help but run from place to place, as the whole farm seemed to merit a joyful gallop rather than a sedate field walk. And as I ran pell-mell past the new asparagus beds and the young pear trees, I thought to myself: this is the joy that memory can never fully depict.

I spent the brief hour that I had harvesting spinach, cutting the leafy bunches just beneath the surface of the soil and then stripping away any bad leaves. It was my first task at Serenbe, just over one year ago. I remembered dragging the bin behind me and basking in the spring sunshine. But I didn't spend long in that memory, as I was too busy savoring the present.

N.B.: I still have a lot to say about Colombia...stay tuned over the next week or two for dispatches about the Coffee Region of Colombia, where, I am happy to report, there is a great deal of wonderful organic growing going on.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

If You Like Piña Coladas....

There are several ways to make a really good piña colada. Obviously, you can run to the store and buy yourself a can of coconut milk and have fairly instant gratification.

Or, you can take 2 months´ vacation and head to Colombia.

Head east along the coast until you hit the tiny beach town of Taganga. Try to avoid a hostel that is adjacent to a discotec, or where the roof flaps in the wind and sends up an infernal racket every 10 minutes. In the morning, take a 15 foot fiberglass fishing dinghy across less than glassy seas to the pristine sands of Parque Tayrona, one of Colombia`s most beautiful national parks. Pack lots of water and food, cuz they`ll charge you an arm and a leg (aka American prices) if you try to buy everything beachside. Be sure to waterproof everything you take on the boat, and strap that lifejacket on tightly. You`ll want to reassuring presure of the straps when the boat flies up one side of the swells and crashes down the other.

At Parque Tayrona, reserve one of the overpriced hammocks and lather up the sunscreen. Try not to sit directly under the coconut trees; just a suggestion. If you wait a while, you are bound to hear the telltale thud of a coconut surrendering itself to gravity and falling to earth. Find a rock (or a machete, if you want to get all fancy). Start hammering away at the outer hull, which feels a bit like soft, fibrous wood. Get comfortable, as this could take a while. It will eventually give under your ministrations, and you should be able to tear the outer husk off in strips and chunks. Increase the fury of your blows against the inner shell until it cracks and the sweet coconut water begins leaking out. Alternatively, after an hour and a half of banging, you could also start looking for friendly old Colombian men who can help you, and who will finish the whole process off in about 3 minutes.

Drink the water, and save the thick skin of cocnut that encircles the interior of the inner shell. Cocnut milk is made from juicing the coconut meat and adding a bit of water. You`ll probably want a blender for this, so you might return to civilization at this point. But first, be sure to take a few days to lounge on the beach, to sample the amazingly delicious chocolate-filled rolls that they make in the tiny bakery a few beaches over, and to explore the interior of the park as well. To be honest, I haven´t got a recipe for amazing piña coladas, as I never got further than greedily slurping down the coconut water and then prying the meat out with my knife. But I´m working on finding a good one for arroz con coco, a real Colombian coastal treat.

Oh and if you wander over to the nudist beach a little farther down the shore, don`t be stingy with the sunscreen.