Our two hostesses took food seriously and would not countenance a missed meal within their dominion. Dazed after an all-night bus journey from Bogotá to Manizales in Colombia’s Zona Cafetera, they swept us (my wife, a friend and member of the family, and I) up in their hospitable arms and sat us down for breakfast.
We were told it was necessarily a light, rushed affair to allow time before lunch. After chaqueta—black coffee made with panela (sugar cane) water—we were given hot chocolate made from a huge bitter slab again blended with panela water. It was accompanied with doblo crema cheese, which we were supposed to melt into the hot chocolate (this really is as bad as it sounds, but fine when eaten separately).
On the side was a generous slice of the ubiquitous arepa—unleavened maize bread eulogized by all Colombians. In my experience, arepas had been as dry and appetizing as sun-bleached bones. Perhaps, they could have a worthy use as building insulation.
These arepas were different: freshly homemade that morning, they were hot, flavoursome and almost succulent—in short, a revelation. Our matriarchal hostesses had blended ash and cocoa into the dough and I ate them all happily, as if I really had a polite alternative while at their table.
I had made the trip from Colombia’s capital to try the country’s finest coffee with my Colombian friend’s cousin Juan Carlos: a taster. His friend-and-fellow-taster Jorge drove us from Manizales to Chinchiná—the centre of Colombian coffee production—where Juan plies his trade.
Jorge—doubtless a thoughtful, deliberate coffee taster—drove in the way he might absent-mindedly slosh back an espresso. We hurtled out of town and into the green valleys with their goats, bamboo, banana trees and tomato plants. Soon we could see coffee plants with their yellow or red beans by the side of the road.
Needing petrol, we swept into a garage. The bags of Chicharrón Light on offer at the till intrigued me. Chicharrón—deep-fried pork rind—is an unlikely diet product and I wondered what “Light” could mean, apart from half-full bags.
Doubtless charged up on diet pork fat, the steep valley roads were busy with cyclists. The gradients and drivers’ disinterest in their safety made for challenging riding. Like everywhere, Colombian cyclists can’t resist ludicrous, dignity-averse lycra. I wondered if they wear Formula 1 jumpsuits to drive to the shops.
We crossed over the River Chinchiná, where local coffee producers are using the microclimate to experiment with new growing techniques. In 1985, lava flowed down the river valley obliterating Armero town and claiming 23,000 lives after the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted.
The area is now thriving thanks to the coffee, which has an important role in the Colombian economy, if not necessarily in its culture. The handpicked, venerated arabica beans are nearly all (95%) destined for export.
Compared to its rougher cousin, robusta; arabica is flavoursome and delicate, lacking the bitterness of its less-rarefied relation. Sliding a sweet coffee bean between his fingers, Jorge informed us that their bitterness is in direct relation to their caffeine content; at 1%, arabica’s is half that of robusta.
We arrived at the fairtrade-only Cooperativa de Caficaltores de Manizales as a beaten-up old jeep pulled with a load of bulging sacks. At the gate, a sample of beans are sucked up a tube and then shot through a window and into Juan Carlos’ laboratory.
He and his team then had 20 minutes to make a chemical analysis, roast and taste-test the hopeful arrivistes. Success means blending for export, failure means returning to the local market to be made into tinto.
I like coffee but I was quickly exposed as a complete tasting illiterate. Juan Carlos and Jorge spooned up the surface of their drinks, cupped their noses over the top and inhaled lustily. “Fruity.” “Tropical.” “The scent of love,” they proclaimed. “Er, really?” I kept to myself. I felt like a blind man at the IMAX for the premier of Avatar.
I looked at the wall charts of fragrances and flavours for inspiration. Some I could understand: caramels, charred, chocolate, even red wine (also called tinto in Spanish) at a push. Others—jasmine, raspberry, custard and thyme—seemed unlikely. Horsey, skunky (the animal rather than the wacky backy) and cabbage seemed worthy of retaining my ignorance.
As woodpeckers flew past the window behind the copper, Heath Robinson bean sorter, this seemed like a lovely place to work. Part factory/laboratory and part finca, the tasters’ job is a blend of the systematic and scientific with the romantic and subjective.
After several tastings, I detected a meaty, porky flavour to one blend. Maybe I was getting somewhere, I hoped so. There was a real joy in the process of discovery. Juan Carlos, Jorge and Don Jaime (a plantation owner with a luxuriant Terry Thomas ’tache) shared an infectious enthusiasm that I longed to share as they giggled and gesticulated over a new experience.
Perhaps this is what comes of Juan Carlos’ daily consumption of between 15 and 20 cups of coffee, on top of around 100 slurp-and-spit tastings. However, there was more than caffeine behind today’s hint of nervous excitement: Juan Carlos was revealing a secret, new blend for the first time.
Juan Carlos had high aspirations that this new creation would break 90 points on the international marking system and become one of Colombia’s finest coffees. The other two seemed impressed and tried to tease information about its make-up but he would not be drawn.
I tried to make the right noises.
We had lunch at Don Jaime’s finca. It was a demanding drive in his muscular jeep, which powered through the dirt tracks into the hills. Impressively, Jorge followed in his little Korean car—a trip I would have only thought possible in a 4x4 or hire car.
For lunch, we ate the classic Colombian soup of Sancocho on the veranda facing five lines of hills and mountains that ended at the Andean Cordillera. Peacocks strutted about as we supped the traditional mixture of chicken, spuds, plantains, yucca, herbs, celery, carrot and peppercorns.
In the gardens, flocks of tiny birds with orange bodies and black wings flitted about the tropical flowers. In the valley below, bamboo appeared to have exploded into life like the finale of an all-green firework display.
It seemed idyllic, except for the need for three ferocious guard dogs and a security team. This beautiful country still has its problems, albeit it’s a different country to the days when cocaine ruled over coffee and everything else.
Back at our hostesses’ for lunch the next day, a considerable effort had been made. We were presented with frijol (bean stew with plantain); chicken chicharrón; fried plantain; lemon coleslaw; chicken with a smooth, elaborate Creole stuffing; rice with chicken, pork and sausage, and it was washed down with guayaba juice (no wine).
It was a staggering spread; the two ladies had been cooking since 7am—a startling 10-combined hours. I was amazed and slightly embarrassed about the amount of work involved. When I expressed my gratitude and thanks, they said: “Oh no, all our meals are like this.”
While the family clearly knew how to enjoy food, we had inadvertently stumbled into a hotbed of coffee-driven sobriety. When I asked Juan Carlos if he would like to go out for a drink on Saturday night, he said: “Great, let’s go to the local Juan Valdez [upmarket coffee shop chain]. It’s excellent.”