Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Coffee in Boquete

Elizabeth Edwards, estranged wife of one-time political candidate John Edwards, died yesterday of the cancer she has fought for years. She did it, to the end, with her usual grace and dignity. What a woman...her children can be proud they're hers.
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We're now snug up in the Panama highlands, at the Panamonte Inn, a country inn with a bit of a snooty viewpoint. Poquete ("po-quet-tay"), the town we're staying in, is tucked into a very tree-and-greenery valley that is part of an old volcano. Everywhere you look, it's crammed with green...oh yes, and people. People wandering around the streets -- and stepping out whenever they feel like it, whether a car's coming or not. People drinking beer outside the liquor store -- or older Americans having loud discussions about weird health problems. (I now know more about when you use socks on disgusting feet problems than I ever cared to.) This place is JAMMED with people, bumping into each other, or just wandering the streets. Reminds me, in some ways, of Aspen, with its pile of houses bumping into each other -- especially big houses.
   There are some intriguing people...Indians here to pick coffee, we're told. The women are very short -- less than 5 ft tall, I'd guess -- and wear bright-colored ankle-length dresses that remind me some of Hawaiian muumuus...but in solids, with what looks like rickrack for trim. (The best photo I could find of them is here...we took a few, but were trying not to rubberneck.) They live four hours or more drive away, but take the bus here and stay for some months, picking coffee. I tried sooo hard not to stare, but was intrigued...
    It's been far chillier here than anywhere else in Panama. Last night, we came into town at the start of a rain-and-windstorm. Lots of mist today, with rain off and on. We spent the afternoon on a coffee tour to the La Miligrosa plantation, hosted by "Mr. Tito." (You can find out more about him and his work here.) The guide went through the whole process, from coffee bush/tree to picking, fermenting, drying and roasting the beans.
    They not only roasted some in front of us, but encouraged us to taste them, both the bean and the ground version, made into coffee. (Tasting it in solution is called "cupping.") Before this, I would have sworn that the dark roast was the most flavorful...but according to Mr. Tito and company, dark roasting is generally what's done with a lesser-quality bean, to mask its lesser flavor. (They also say that the 'export brand' is generally the lesser-quality beans; the good stuff is sold in bulk to a buyer -- often Japanese -- or kept in the country!) What I discovered was that the light was good, but the medium roast really brought out the bean's flavor. And the dark roast? You could just taste 'burn,' not the various nuances. ("Smell the citrus?" the guide said, when we sniffed the light roast. And we could. Fruit trees are grown around the coffee bushes, to protect them and give animals another food source. Some believe that these trees actually lend their essences to the coffee, as well.)
    Mr. Tito (full name: Tito Vargas) built his coffee plantation up from some acres of replanted cow pasture. He grew 9 kinds of coffee beans, and processed them with machinery he cobbled together from junk autos -- even a computer fan! And this iconoclast began to win prizes for his coffee. This year, he took second place in the annual Best of Panama coffee contest -- against very heavy competition. (You'll find it listed as 'Panacoffee.') An amazing guy -- and terrific-tasting coffee.

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