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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

They've got an awful lot of coffee...

coffee blossoms and banana tree

Once the majority of the ants had been removed from my person, the four of us, (me cursing for wearing black socks that camouflaged the attackers, Laura inspecting my limbs while translating Julia's apology, that she'd meant to get to burning the nest and simply hadn't gotten to it yet, and Mike, still poorly hiding his amusement) I insisted that the plantation tour must continue, ants or no ants.

In this spirit, then, I tried to be discrete while finding new ants scurrying over and biting bits of me upon which they oughtn't have been.

There is nothing like being stung between the toes by an ant while trying to smash it though your sock while balancing on the other foot. Discretely. It must have looked beyond idiotic as I wobbled and pinched and tried not to fall to the jungle floor where goodness knows what other delights lurked.

The correct way to say "I have ants in my pants but don't worry about it" in Spanish is "tengo hormigas en mis pantalones, de nada." Laura nicely told Julia this for me.

Julia gave me an uncertain look but rose to the occasion and began to teach us about growing that beautiful gift of the gods to mankind: coffee.

Ah, coffee. It begins life as a bean, throwing down roots and then coming up through the soil in a Dr. Suess-ish way, the round bean perched on top of a slender green stem. Eventually the bean cracks to reveal leaves inside.

Being slightly obsessed with coffee, (had you noticed?) I tried and tried to grow my own coffee plant from beans I brought back from another plantation in Kona, Hawaii. The little sprouts would shoot up, give me hope...and then the weight of the bean would bend and break the stem, shrivel and die, leaving me depressed and with a sense of guilt. I got leaves once or twice, but in the end, always the same. Sad, dead little failed bit of life.

Julia thought perhaps it was the lack of warm, moist jungle air that caused me such grief.

However, if you do manage to grow your coffee plant, you have to wait several years. Then you have a nice little bush, and, with any luck, it flowers, starlike white blossoms

which turn into the much-loved beans, hidden inside bright red berries, generally two to each fruit.

Sadly, there had been rains at exactly the wrong time for the current crop, so there were far fewer flowers than usual, Julia explained through Laura. Many of the berries had spoiled before the beans inside could develop. Again, Julia apologised, again, unnecessarily.  The life of a farmer, after all, is one of hard work, swarms of angry insects, and unhelpful weather. Honest and real.

When the coffee fruits, called cherries, are ripe they are selectively harvested by hand and put in a container of water to soak. The good ones sink while the bad ones float to the top to be removed.

The heavy fruits that sank are put into a sort of de-pulper that, hand-turned with a crank, roughly grinds off the berry, leaving two beans from each berry with some pulp still attached, behind.

Except for the peaberries, which happen about one per 20 fruits picked. The bean is fatter with only one per fruit, and they're sorted out for special treatment, roasting, and garner a higher price.

All the beans ferment for a time, are washed again, any foreign material, sticks or leaves, for instance, is removed, and, now clean, are spread out to dry in the sun.

They are raked and turned to expose all surfaces to the light, and having them laid out on concrete works well, since it heats up so beautifully.

Dogs tend to hang out with the beans on the warm slabs as well, like this one at a neighbor's farm; good spot for a nap.

Finally, after they are perfectly dry, the "green" beans are sifted to remove chaff, carefully sorted by size and quality, the heaviest being considered the best, then packed into burlap sacks for market.

Or better, roasted. Roasted in a pan over a stone, wood-burning stove, constantly agitated as the beans swell and brown and make crackling sounds, releasing incredible aromas and becoming shiny with oils.

This, my friends, is magic.

Food chemistry at its finest, and an art besides: that little glass bottle (above) contains an elixir of incredibly strong coffee. I never did find out how the coffee got from bean to bottle of enticingly dark and highly concentrated goodness, but Juan was very proud of it. He could bring it to us with his huge smile and near-ritual ceremony, as well as the good "company" cups and hot water.

You would pour just a bit into your cup, then add hot water to bring it down to the shade of strong you want. The aroma was intoxicating. The flavor...well, you had to be there to believe it. Amazing.

Back from beneath the trees, seated at the table with the blue-and-white tablecloth, we made and sipped our exquisite coffees, breathing deeply the cooling night air, listening as the jungle came alive, and sighing in total contentment.

Julia and her daughter were in the rustic kitchen, pots clattering on the stove, as they put the finishing touches on what promised to be a memorable meal, bug repellant had been reapplied to all our exposed bits, I'd daubed a good amount of ointment on my ant bites; this was the life.

Postscript: I was reading an account that Captain Albert W Stevens wrote in 1926  for National Geographic describing his experiences in the Amazon, and he made me smile. Here is some of what he has to say about coffee and ants:

Ants appear in one's food always, whether in settlements or in camp. Often one puts a spoonful of native sugar into his cup, skims off the ants from the surface of a little hot water poured in to dissolve the sugar, and then adds coffee. This method seldom removes all the ants, but after the coffee is added they are not readily seen!

You have to appreciate his attitude. I'd take a fellow like that on expedition any day.


  1. I'm not a coffee drinker (gasp! will you still be my friend?) but I can appreciate the beauty in your description of the plants and the process. I do like the smell though :) But the ants? I'm shuddering. Actually, I scratching. The mosquitoes have arrived here and apparently I'm very tasty because they love me. I don't think I'd fare too well in the jungle!

  2. Paula, you, me and tea. Is it a date? I also adore tea, and don't tell anyone, but while I could give up coffee, there's no taking away my cuppa. :)