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...

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