Wednesday, June 27, 2012

2012, 13th - 15th June: Salento, Colombia

For the full complement of photos that accompany this blog entry, use the following link to the corresponding set in my Flickr account:

Salento, a small town in ´Zona Cafetera´ (coffee district), is famed for its coffee plantations and nearby valleys in which grow the majestic palma de cera (wax palm) trees.

The mountains here are a soft and lush version of the Andes, without the imposing high peaks found elsewhere, but very beautiful nevertheless. The vast swathes of green are evidence that this is a great place for crops – as long as you are a farmer who can live a rugged life on the steep-sloped land. The terrain is a clear reason why horseback is the favoured mode of transport around the valleys once away from the main roads.

Coffee Plantation

Being someone who is seriously into their coffee, to see the plants, beans and processing first hand was a treat. I took a tour of a small plantation and received enough facts and interesting anecdotes to keep even the most ardent espresso enthusiast entertained. I shall try to recall some of the highlights in this blog. If my memory has faltered and some of the facts are incorrect, no doubt there will be a barrage of feedback in the comments section below.

The coffee plant grows at altitudes between 1400 and 2000 metres (4590 to 6560 feet). I suppose if us Brits were to build a greenhouse with some light boxes on the summit of Ben Nevis we might just get one bean per annum to make a tiny cup once a year on Burn´s night (the ´och-aye-espresso´).

Ripe Coffee in Red & Yellow Shells

There are two types of coffee beans – the Robusta and the Arabica, the former being higher in caffeine but a bit harsher to the palate, the latter being smoother. There are sub-varieties of these two types. In Colombia they grow Arabica beans. The traditional varieties need a lot more TLC and more specific conditions (such as shade), whereas the modern varieties guarantee a higher yield (for one thing they can be planted closer together than the traditional varieties). Hence the vast majority of beans are from the modern types of trees.

If left to it´s own devices, the coffee plant would grow to the size of an apple tree, but that would make picking the beans a pain so they are maintained at about human height. Each time they flower and produce beans, that section of the tree does not flower again. Instead the branch grows on outwards and flowers further out in the next cycle. It takes some years for the tree to establish itself and it does not start producing good yields for some years (peaks around 4 or 5 years I believe). After that yields start to drop off, and apart from minimising the decline in subsequent yields by pruning, the productive life of a tree is around 15 years. The beans are house in a shell. While growing, the shell is green and they are ripe when the shells are either red or yellow (both colours exist). They are picked by hand.

Coffee Beans (Just After Having Had the Shells Removed)

An overview of the processing is roughly as follows. The shells are removed (revealing the two beans inside each one – the colour of the beans is a greyish very pale green). They are soaked and washed in water to remove the natural sugars (if this is not done when the beans are roasted the sugar will burn the beans making the coffee much more bitter). They are then dried (in the warmth of the sun), after which the ´skin´ of the beans is removed. At this point in the cycle they are traded and (more often than not for the Colombian beans) exported. The roasting (a skilled process) is normally done in or near to the country of consumption. I believe that the Italians are regarded as the best coffee roasters.

Washed & Dried Coffee Beans (Not Yet Roasted)

What with the removal of the shell, the washing and drying and removal of the ´skin´, the beans lose a lot of weight and by the time they are sold, the weight is only 18% of that which came off the tree. When they are traded, the price offered by the merchant is updated twice a day. Interestingly, I have seen on the news on Colombian television at the point that they report the day´s fiscal data (such as exchange rates) they also quote the price per kilo for coffee – just shows how important this cash crop is to Colombia.

To any potential visitors to Colombian who think that this is the Mecca for coffee – be warned: Most of the population here, very surprisingly, do not really ´get´ coffee and the vast majority of stuff you buy in cafes etc is frankly naff. With a distinct lack of coffee connoisseurs in Colombia and with only a handful of people with expertise in roasting the beans (as mentioned earlier this is a tricky art), the country that is perhaps the most famed for coffee production is a place where a decent espresso is a rarity. If you want a coffee treat on every street, go to Italy.

Valle de Corcora

The main attraction of Valle (valley) de Cocora is the stunning sight of the palma de cera (wax palm) trees. These palms are very slender and tall (around 60 metres (200 feet)), with the leafed section solely at the top. Set against the backdrop of the lush mountain sides, frequently amidst creeping mists, they make a mesmerising sight.

Wax Palms in Valle de Corcora

My early start for my walk in Valle de Corcora afforded me views free of mists in all but the tops of the surrounding ridges, enabling me to see my first sights of the wax palms in their lush green settings. After climbing alongside Rio Quindío to the Reserva Acaime, I walked part-way down before taking an alternative route back. While climbing towards Finca la Montaña, the low clouds moved in. While this did obscure the wider vistas, it transformed the sights of the trees into something quite different. From a distance in the grey light the palms were almost black and when entirely blanketed in mists, their forms were ghost-like and the sight was akin to a dreamy subsea scene.

Beams of Sunlight Across Wax Palms in Valle de Corcora

A Misty Wood Above Valle de Corcora

Mist-Enveloped Wax Palms in Valle de Corcora

An Underwater-Like Scene in Valle de Corcora

Descending towards the valley below, I dropped below the cloud line and was presented with a new vista. With the grassland kept short by grazing cattle and the sculpture-like palms in every direction, the scene was like a vast ´palm garden´. A truly beautiful sight to marvel at as I walked back to the road to end a truly memorable day.

A Garden-Like Scene in Valle de Corcora

A Beautiful Array of Wax Palms in Valle de Corcora

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