Coffee is one of my favorite things in the world. When I was in college, and young and stupid, I used coffee for its caffeine, which gave me the fortitude to pull all-nighters and write ridiculous papers in Spanish. As I got older, I fell in love with the sweet and creamy beverages at Starbucks, adulterating my coffee with sugar, cream, syrup, “flavor”, and whatever else they had on offer. To be fair, if you’ve ever had an actual cup of Starbucks coffee, you’ll understand the need to hide in amongst all the fluff. But Starbucks, not unlike the tobacco industry, has managed to create a brew that nearly doubles the traditional dosage of caffeine in a cup of coffee and in the process created a new generation of supposed “coffee-lovers”.
But I’m older and wiser now. I understand how magical coffee really is, and howpowerful it can be. Of course, I’m certainly not the first, coffee has in Colombiahad an intricate role in defining culture for 500 years. Its origins aren’t certain, but the story we heard says that Ethiopian shepherds first noticed their goats acting a little frisky and energetic after eating a specific bean. So they picked a few and tried to chow down on it themselves. The flavor was awful and the cherry itself difficult to chew, so, the tradition goes, they threw the beans in the fire to dispose of. And from there, an amazing aroma arose leading to both the discovery of the roasting process and the possibility of brewing a beverage from the beans.
More likely, though, the beans were eaten, possible mixed with other substances, though at some point, someone must have realized the brewing process and then, of course, the addition of milk (and sweeteners). But as coffee domestication arose and cultivation grew, the consumption of coffee spread first through the Islamic world and then into Europe, where it came to be associated with amazing bouts of creativity and later with rebellion and stirring. Coffee was banned in England for a while, and also in Turkey, because so-called subversives would drink it while secretly meeting to foment upheaval.
Today, coffee is grown in many countries in the Bean Belt, and there are a few varieties of beans. One of the largest producers in the world is Colombia, a country that recognized the potential of coffee as an agricultural export. In the early part of the 20th century, coffee growers unionized and the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia was formed in 1927 to support Colombian farmers with research and incentives to export. Today, coffee grows in the Zona or Eje Cafetera in Colombia (mostly mountainous regions) and supports some half-million farming families.
We had an opportunity to spend a few days in the Eje Cafetera, where we visited a coffee finca called Recuca (near Salento). This was my second time at a finca (first time a small family farm in Nicaragua) and I was struck by how commercial it was. The finca had an educational tour set up (mostly Colombian tourists) and they led us through the process of production, from growing the crops for several years before a cherry is produced through to the grinding and brewing of coffee. For those who don’t know – coffee is best grown in the shade of a forest, but these days it is grown on wide open tracts of land with full sun, as that allows the cherries to ripen faster (it also requires more agricultural inputs, including pesticides, a situation not unlike commercial tea growing). The cherries are picked when they are brightest red, then dried and stripped to reveal the bean itself. The bean is then dried and is ready to be shipped. Or it can be roasted on site, but the shelf life of a roasted bean is shorter than unroasted.
One thing you learn in the process of coming to love coffee is that all you ever thought you knew about coffee flavor is wrong. Dark and bitter and strong is not how coffee is traditionally brewed, unless it is a specific type of brewing (such as Turkish coffee). But the dark tarry cups of joe you can buy at Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, etc, need all that milk and sugar to hide what horrible things they’ve done to perfectly decent beans.
At Recuca, we attended a coffee tasting, or catacion. We were first told about the various aromas that coffee can hold, ranging from leathery to fruity to floraly to a scent not unlike tobacco (and many many more). Then the various categories of taste, including sweet, salty, bitter, sour and acidic. Then there is body and astringency. While coffee’s characteristic flavor is bitter, it should not be too bitter and should in fact be balanced by a bright acidity and a touch of sweetness. It should also have a full body feel (like whole milk) and a soft moistness. In other words, if you curl up your nose or pucker your mouth after taking a sip, it’s simply not good coffee.
The flavor is affected not just by the growing of the coffee but the quality of the beans. Beans should be fat and whole and not cracked (cracked beans are used for instant coffee and other coffees of lesser quality). They should also be roasted to a medium tan color (not dark brown) to avoid the excessive bitterness. The overroasting of beans, while it can concentrate caffeine is usually done to hide the diminished quality of the beans. And then finally, the grinding matters too, and the brewing process as well. Or, more importantly, the grind and the brew should be appropriately matched to develop the most ideal strength and flavor.
While brewing brings its own considerations in terms of health (there is some concern that coffee oils affected by roasting might be carcinogenic, so a filter is often the best way to remove those oils), it also highly affects flavor and becomes a trade-off for the coffee fanatic.
The Zona Cafetera is not just about coffee, though. It’s a beautiful countryside full of lovely and warm people. There are the usual mid-sized overcrowded cities, but they are very easy to avoid. While in the region, we also visited the Termales of Santa Rosa, and took a horse back riding expedition in the Colca Valley, home of the palmas de cera. The horse trail was rather muddy and steep, and while there were moments where I was certain my horse and I were going to go tumbling down the mountainside,I still think I preferred going via horse vs foot. At the top of the trail, we passed through the cloud forest, where the biodiversity of the region changes (and, we were told, there exists bears and colorful birds – we only managed to see hummingbirds).
The Eje Cafetera is not a usual stop-off for foreign tourists in Colombia (the coasts and cities draw greater appeal), but it’s another little-seen aspect of a country that is still not high on tourism lists. Which of course means it’s an ideal time for a visit. And hopefully, the more people visit the authentic homes of coffee in the world, the more we’ll demand better coffee, and the more available it will be.
While in Cali, Colombia, I had the opportunity to spend the day at the zoo. Normally, that’s not my idea of how to spend the day while vacationing in another country, but much has been said about the zoo in Cali. While it’s not on par with San Diego and the like, I found it very interesting. One of the main draws is the focus on Colombian wildlife – sort of a catalog of the local flora and fauna. Colombia has an incredible biodiversity, and its recent history of violence and conflict has, for better or worse, provided an opportunity to preserve some of that. And more recently a number of foundations have cropped up to address social and environmental issues (though, one must be wonder where some of those foundations have come from…).
So, off to the zoo I went. I walked from my hostel (which turned out to be something like 3 miles each way), and got a nice walking tour of the city as well (San Antonia, Tertulia, Parque de Gatos, etc). The zoo itself is in a rather nice residential area pretty much at the end of a road, so you can’t miss it (if you are on the right road). I can’t remember what I paid, maybe 14000 COP? I ended up spending about 3 hours there, before walking back to my hostel. While the walk itself was hot and sweaty, the zoo area was a lot cooler with a nice breeze.
There a clear path marked out for you to follow from start to finish, though you could certainly reverse the path if you want. But it’s not really possibly to just wander aimlessly here and there – the pathways, while branching into little cul-de-sacs, didn’t really connect to each other. Still, it’s nice to have a set route so you don’t miss anything.
The zoo starts with birds, and it is a nice touch that you can walk into the birdhouse with the birds themselves. It’s followed by primates, who aren’t in the greatest of surroundings (too cage-like, and far far too small). However, here you get the first indicate that Colombia has made a commitment to biodiversity and protection of species, and there will be a new primate home in the coming years. The rest of the zoo is fairly standard in terms of large enclosures (though really, not large enough) and an attempt at natural environment. Aquatic life, amphibians, and reptiles are mostly in glass terrarium/aquarium type enclosures. Most of the animals are in fairly decent housing, but a few stick out to me as not being enough. In particular, the tigers have clearly gone mad. There are two – an orange one and a white one – and they spend their time pacing. The white one in particular, paces in front of the glass window into the enclosure, brushing up against the glass constantly. I suspect the grizzly is in similar straits.
Still, I can’t help but admire the attempt. A lot has been written about zoos and their pros and cons, and I won’t go into that here. But I’ve seen zoos in a lot of countries, and some horrific conditions for the animals, and I think they could do a lot worse than Cali. In particular, the attempt to showcase the wide array of Colombian wildlife, coupled with the very clear directive towards national pride (and protection of diversity) definitely holds promise for conservation efforts in Colombia.
Despite an incredible backlog of posts here for my life in Ireland, I’m interrupting the daily grind to bring news from Colombia, la tierra de realismo magico. I’ve been in Colombia almost a week, initially for a meeting and now just for fun. I’ve been in Cali, where I’ve had some incredible experiences and met great people, and in another day I’ll head to Bogota and then places beyond.
Colombia gets a bad rep. Everyone thinks it’s funny (or maybe they are being serious) to say “don’t get kidnapped” upon hearing I was traveling here. Years ago, that might have been some good advice (we’ve all seen “Romancing the Stone”). These days, though, unless you head into some really remote areas (generally to the south), you’ll be fairly safe, at least from terrorism. Regular crime (muggings, mostly) are a completely different matter.
Colombia’s approach to its insecurity issues has traditionally been a ramping up of security forces. Most of these forces had rampant corruption, and the war on the narcotraficantes and guerrillas often took innocent lives too (these wars were rather fluid, at times the government and the cartels fought together,at times, the left-wing groups fought with the cartels, etc). These days, police presence is still a major portion of national security (as are cameras), which has resulted in something of a police state. There is still rampant corruption in the policia and armed forces, but at municipal levels this is being ferreted out. The main cartels in Cali and Medellin have been mostly broken (but still exist), and paramilitary forces still operate in the south, but in a more decentralized way. On the whole, there is more trust in the police and government now then there had been before.
In Cali, homicides are still a bit high, but lower than the 90s and early 2000s. Most countries issue travel warnings to Cali and other parts of the South and West, but tourism is exploding in the North along the Caribbean coast. And Medellin, formerly well-known for the notorious Pablo Escobar, is now better known as the City of Eternal Spring and Botero.
And so, here I am, in the Capital of Salsa. Calenos never seem to sleep – just eat, drink, dance, and occasionally shoot each other. During the meeting, we had an incredlble amount of security around us – at the hotel, driving us around (and holding traffic – much like being in a presidential motorcade!), even to/from the airport. Others at the meeting (from other countries) commented on the feasibility of such presence (El Salvador I understand is similar), as well desirability. There seems to be a balance here though – the police are around as a show of force, but there is still great mobility amongst citizens. I feel mostly safe walking around the neighborhood I’m currently in, even if the police at the previous hotel (I switched locations after the meeting) checked the taxi I took to get here.
One more day here, and I plan to do something very mundane but exciting – visit the Zoo. it’s a nice walk through a historic area and downtown from my current location, and then a good few hours visiting Colombia’s best zoo – known for its indigenous wildlife (and the occasional Bengal tiger).
It’s been almost two months since I arrived in Dublin. When I first came, it snowed almost every day (though with little accumulation). Then there were harsh winds and overcast skies. Now, the weather seems to be taking a turn for the warmer, with some days of nicely sunny skies breaking through.
I’ve been lucky to have some contract work while I’ve been here (since I can’t legally work here yet), and hopefully more contract work will be in the future. In the meantime, I’ve taken steps to submit my visa application (a whole blog post in and of itself), and just settle in. With the warmer weather, I’ve been more motivated to do things (rather than just working or sitting on the couch!). A few fun things I’ve discovered:
- Slow-roasted tomatoes: we’ve been accumulating tomatoes recently, and a brief Google search yielded options for a variation on the sun-dried tomato theme: turning on the oven to a low temp (about 100 C) and letting the tomatoes dry/bake for several hours. The result is indescribably delicious (and which I will blog about later).
- Gardening: We’ve taken the plunge to getting a garden plot, or allotment. It’s quite large, with endless opportunities (and challenges!). Hopefully in the next week or so, we’ll have a chance to prep the space and set up the raised beds. In the meantime, seeds have been ordered. Stay tuned for a lot of posts on this front.
- Biking: I will confess, I’ve been on a bike once since I was 16. But, given that I’m in the ‘burbs and I don’t want to get a car, the bike is a great way to go. Plus, I could use the exercise! So I bought a bike – named her Aoife – and have been exploring some of the local cycle tracks. I’d like to train for a charity ride, so I suspect there will be some posts coming up on how I’ve managed that.
- Shedding kilos: I’ve managed to drop a few kilos since I arrived (3 to be exact), so hopefully the next 3 will go just as quickly. I attribute this to cutting out a large amount of junk food (though not all!) and lots of home cooking. Judging by our organic scraps box, we go through a LOT of veg and fruit. Will update on this front in mid-June!
- Cooking: I love to cook, and working from home (and sharing said home with someone) means more opportunity to try out new recipes. The cooking shows on BBC and elsewhere are fantastic – dishes you actually want to try to make (and don’t seem ridiculously difficult). One particular favorite for me is BBC’s Saturday Kitchen. Next stop: trying out some of Paul Hollywood’s (swoon) bread recipes.
- Reading: I’ve actually managed to get some reading in, mostly my meditation books (as part of my meditation teacher training). Now that it is getting warmer, I’m hoping to maybe sit outside int the grass and read more.
- Farm shop: My SO took me to a farm shop and cafe when I was here last year, and we’ve since visited several times in the past few weeks. The cafe has delicious food, and the shop sells not only their own produce but also other items. They aren’t all local (farmers’ markets here are not the same as in the US), but by law provenance has to be labeled on produce and meat so I can see where things come from. I am always amused by the French and Dutch potatoes, and I confess to having bought some pineapples from Costa Rica.
So far, things have been really wonderful here. I’ve also been taking classes at a local yoga studio, and getting my home office set up. There has also been a good amount of walking in a local park, as well as some day hiking. In a few months, I’ll start the job hunt in earnest, and will hopefully see some fruitful results!
It’s no big secret that Irish weather is not for the faint of heart. But it’s been particularly hard to deal with the past few weeks, with constant clouds, rain, snow, sleet, hail, and the coldest, most biting wind ever. However, the past few days has brought a dry spell (and mostly sunny skies), which would normally be great news. Except, for reasons I am still trying sort out, the dry spell has coincided with water rationing.
As an American who lived in the Midwest and East Coast, water rationing is something of a mystery to me. I’ve experienced it in other countries, but the eastern part of the US is a relatively wet climate, and even when there is drought, there is still water. Specifically, the water that is treated for drinking and other household usage tends to sit in reservoirs that are designed to a capacity far greater than the population they serve. In the western part of the US, of course, water rationing is not uncommon, but it is much drier, and the lack of groundwater/rainwater causes shortages.
Ireland, however, is a wet rainy island, with abundant groundwater. In fact, as far as I can tell, the reservoirs that hold water are full. However, the reservoir that holds potable water for Dublin city is low (and another one has some sort of contamination). So, the city has decided to reduce the water pressure to preserve water for 12 hours every night. For most people, this results in almost no cold water (there is still hot water, as that comes into the boiler, so presumably, until that runs out, one is ok) from about 7 pm to 7 am. I can only assume the bottled water companies are experiencing a windfall right now.
Now, as I snicker over the idea of a rainy island experiencing a water shortage, I have to admit this is the second time I’ve been here for one. The reasons given include unusually cold weather lasting longer than expected, which causes leakages in the reservoirs and pipes. I think the contamination in the second reservoir might also be an important factor this time around. And apparently, water usage goes up when the weather is colder. The city has issued some water-saving measures including reducing shower time, turning off the tap when brushing teeth, and only running dishwasher/washing machine when full. This is clearly a system built for its climate – I could only imagine the havoc wreaked if people were washing cars or watering lawns. It’s not that cold here though, and certainly there are reservoirs and systems around the world that will hold up under much colder temperature. I can only assume there is no political will here to upgrade the system, which seems about par for the course.
Yahoo! told me recently that carrot cake is a traditional Easter dessert. Easter is kind of a big holiday here, with bank closures on Friday and Monday (and some businesses too). I assume everyone will go to church tomorrow, but I like the idea of celebrating in a culinary fashion (tonight I’m apparently having fish pie). I’m not a big fan of carrot cake, but I do love the cream cheese frosting. So I thought I could see if I could figure out a version that I’d find tasty. I’m not sure what I don’t really like – I think it’s the weird stringy carrots and the greasiness. Plus it’s so super sweet. I’ve also discovered recently that I’m not really a cake fan – I much prefer denser chewier pastries (flaky pastries excepted).
So I dug around the internet for a bit trying to find a recipe that either fit the bill, or seemed easily modifiable. What I ended up with was a mix of two of my go-to sites: Simply Recipes and 101 Cookbooks. The first is more of a typical recipe, but it did give me some sense of proportions, temperature and timing for cupcakes. The second is more my kind of baked good, though I do like a bit more spice. So between the two, I fashioned more of an iced carrot muffin, a bit denser, not crumby, and much less sweet, but with some body and a good mouthfeel. And a heck of a lot of carrots.
I don’t have a good recipe for this, since I eyeballed most of my ingredients and added more when I felt the batter didn’t quite suit. I am also working with an oven with a faulty thermostat, so there was some element of guesswork on temperature and timing. But, if anything, that makes the whole thing more forgiving, so if anyone wants to duplicate, here’s a general idea of what I worked with:
makes 12 cupcakes
zest of one orange, finely minced
4 dates, finely minced and a bit mashed
1 small banana, mashed
2 eggs, room temperature
300g shredded carrots
0,5 tsp vanilla (vanilla bean would be nice too)
0.75 cup coconut oil, melted
2 tbsp honey
3-4 tbsp maple syrup
0.5 cup buttermilk or thinned yogurt
1.5 cups flour + 2-3 tbsps
0.5 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
0.5 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
0.5 tsp nutmeg
0.5 tsp ginger
(can add cardamom, cloves, allspice, etc, too!)
200g cream cheese, room temperature
3 tbsp maple syrup
(can add additional sweetener of any kind here, I ended up adding 3 tbsp of powdered sugar too)
1. Combine orange zest, dates, and banana in a small bowl. Mix and mash til well combined.
2. Beat eggs in a large bowl. Add carrots, vanilla, coconut oil, honey, maple syrup, and yogurt, and combine well.
3. In separate bowl, combine, flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and spices.
4. Fold dry ingredients into wet, and avoid overmixing. If too wet, add more flour; if too dry, add more coconut oil or buttermilk. My batter was very thick and not at all runny, which yields a more bread-like consistency vs cake.
5. Bake 15-20 minutes at 175 C (take them out when slightly underdone), and let cool completely before frosting.
For the frosting, combine the cream cheese with the maple syrup and other sweeteners as desired. As a note, this makes a somewhat runny frosting, so some coconut oil or butter might give it better structure. After frosting, store muffins in refrigerator.
And enjoy! I might try adding some orange juice to the batter next time, or possibly some zest to the cream cheese frosting. I suppose you can add some spice to the frosting too. I would love those little frosting carrots too, but I couldn’t be bothered to make them. A sprinkling of desiccated coconut on top could be tasty too (tossed in a little sugar or toasted maybe?).