Archive for October, 2009

Parents and Plans

The long anticipated arrival of the parents has finally happened; after numerous twists, turns and changes of plan we’ve all managed to land in the same city with the intention of spending the next month together bumbling around Peru while a job opportunity that I’m chasing up near Cuzco simmers with typical Latin American time frames.

Relaxation is the watchword; we’ll be spending a couple of days around Lima before heading to the impressive coastal town of Paracas to lounge around for a bit, followed by a jaunt up the railway to Huancayo before somehow getting to Cuzco to help Ma realise her dream of visiting Machu Picchu. There will doubtless be other bigs and bobs; as plans go it’s a simple one, but that’s how we like it.

It’s great to see The Olds again after a 10 month dry spell, and with so much happening for us all since I took my leave of Blighty in January there’s a lot of catching up to do, as well as consuming the copious quantity of home-made flapjacks smuggled through customs.

Lima, Peru
27th October 2009


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Ze Germans

Every once in a while you see something that pushes your comprehension of what is possible; such was my visit to German-run Nicaraguan coffee plantation/farm/tourism project Selva Negra.

Handed down from generations of German immigrants, the coffe farm eventually arrived in the hands of the current owners, Eddy and Mausi Kühl. In an attempt to realise more value from the land that they owned they built cabins for sale on plots but nobody wanted to buy, only rent; thus the tourism project was born.

In recent decades they’ve focussed on trying to make operations as sustainable as possible and, with typical German efficiency, absolutely knocked the ball out of the park.Suffice to say this posting could not begin to scratch the surface of the systems that have been put in place at Selva Negra; only the 100 page visitors guide book can do that. However, to try and give you an example or two; all whey from the cheese processing plant on the farm is fed to the free range pigs, as it contains the right nutrients for a good diet; worker housing is provided along with schooling facilities, a medical clinic, personal kitchens supplied with gas stoves (fuelled by methane, the product of biodigested coffee bean parchment waste) and festivals in order to keep employee retention high and maintain commitment; plastic bottles are reused to house an organic pesticide to prevent coffee cherry mites reducing quality of their crop…the list just goes on and on.

If you’ve thought of something that could be done to improve sustainability, chances are that these guys have already done it. If they haven’t, they’re working on it. And they’re STILL coming up with new solutions for reducing waste, making sure that a use is found for everything. They’ve got staff (locals, of course) working in an on-site lab finding organic resources available from the diverse range of operations on the farm so that they could be used to try and improve coffee yields, or the diet of the animals.The result? From a farm of over 400 livestock, a coffee plantation with 200 employees and a tourist resort that accommodates up to 150 guests (and freqently does), the amount of waste generated in a week is equivalent to a 55 gallon drum.
One interesting side of the coin with Selva Negra is that they are not affiliated in any way with Fair Trade, even though their coffee is Rainforest Alliance certified and conforms to organic standards. It has the obviously incompatible status of being a private plantation, small scale producer cooperatives being the primary recipient of FT benefits, but it is heart-warming to see people taking independent initiative outside mainstream schemes to provide a good quality of life for their workforce. It also brings into focus a tough question that should be consistently asked of accredited Fair Trade businesses; how much social benefit is the elevated and stabilised ‘fair’ sales price (that everyone talks so much about) directly having on the farmers that it aims to help?
Leon, Nicaragua
20th October 2009

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The Joy of Maize

Lou’s been off in the countryside for the last week, getting educated by the community project Hijos Del Maiz (Children Of Maize) Language School, provider of homestays and Spanish lessons in the tiny settlement of Lagartillo away from the luxuries of hot water (and running water for that matter), electricity, internet, mobile phones and all that jazz. Below is the main drag in all its glory.

I went to see how she was doing at the weekend and was surprised at what I found.The village is a community in a true sense, with people wandering in and out of each others houses, something the language students are encouraged to do as often as possible. Everyone is jolly friendly and will natter on at you about anything if you give them half a chance.

Two things that really struck me were how a direct relationship with their surroundings through food growing and production can help them maintain an impressive physical state and how much waste is produced.

When you’re living off the land, you know exactly what you’re putting into your body; after all, you’re the one growing and harvesting crops and preparing the food from them. Food in Lagartillo is very simple (re: tortilla, rice and beans for every meal), but you can taste the simple purity of what you are eating; the effects of its quality are also well represented by the people within the community who have been eating the diet for years.

Erminia (above) is Lou’s homestay mother; she’s 70 years old and works solidly from 6 in the morning until 8 at night, doing everything from domestic chores to herding cows around a field. Bowling along with a spring in her step, she reduces piles of maize like the recent delivery below (more, we were told, would shortly be arriving) to sacks of corn, putting the medication supported geriatric population of the uk to shame.

Nothing gets wasted in the countryside; the myriad of packaging that has to get stripped off supermarket goods before they can be consumed just doesn’t exist on food that was pulled out of the ground, or on the meat of the animal that was grunting or clucking around the house the day before. All paper (toilet and otherwise) and corn husks are burnt in the house’s stone oven (below) and the ashes dropped in with the contents lurking in the base of the compost toilet out at the back of the property. Food leftovers go to the animals, and rainwater is used sparingly in place of running water. It is all so straightforward that you can barely believe that the huge quantities of junk that get turned out on to the street from the average UK house every week can’t be avoided.

It certainly gives you pause for thought when you see somewhere like Lagartillo, and unavoidably begs the question; at what point did we isolate ourselves within dense populations (when was the last time you hung out with your neighbours?), checking the nutritional information on the side of food packaging to make sure we weren’t poisoning our bodies before tossing it into a bottomless bin destined eventually for a landfill site out of sight and mind, before chewing down suppliments to keep ourselves “healthy” and make up for the shortcomings of the aforementioned food? What’s missing from this picture?

Esteli, Nicaragua
18th October 2009

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Putting Walls to Good Use

Leon has a fine selection of street art and wall murals about town; these fine specimens (including the father of the revolution, Augsto C. Sandino) were within a few feet of one another, just around the corner from one of my favourite hangouts, the ice cream parlour. Included in the wall art is the Granddaddy of the Nicaraguan Revolution, Agusto Cesar Sandino.

Leon, Nicaragua
17th October 2009

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Hunger Strikes

Largartillo, Nicaragua
16th October 2009

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Full Flavour Behaviour

The SolCafe beneficio stands beside the main road into Managua, a collection of dispersed concrete buildings and warehouses surrounding a large concrete patio and field that is completely covered with coffee beans drying in the sun; its here that the farmers of the CECOCAFEN cooperative bring their coffee beans from the surrounding region to be weighed and sold. Emerging through the front gate with Rachel, with whom I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last week understanding more about the world of ethical trading, we commence a tour of all the buildings to greet everyone on-site and search for Rachel’s partner Simon who, it turns out, is being shown large and complicated coffee processing machines in one of the warehouses by a proud figure of authority. We’re here to do a tasting, comparing the coffee that the owners of the cooperative are currently selling to the national market against a range of other coffees that Rachel has taken from the local supermarket shelves.

Assembled in the beneficio’s coffee lab and surrounded by the rich odour of toasted and ground beans, Rachel, Simon and I are joined by the resident tasters and a couple of guys who are responsible for the beneficio’s nationally distributed consumer coffee brand, Café Nica. Solemnly, cups are placed around a rotating table in groups of four for each of the six varieties that we will perform a blind taste test with, and ground coffee is distributed among the cups. We are duly handed marking sheets, and instructed how to engage in the process of evaluating a cup.

The first step is to describe the odour of the dry ground coffee. Following instructions, I place my hand over the top of the cup and sniff deeply through the small aperture between my thumb and finger. Owing to my enthusiasm for the exercise a notable amount of coffee goes up my nose and while I try I ignore the tickling in the back of my nasal cavity I focus on the list of adjectives in Spanish on my sheet, which include vocabulary such as ‘nutty’ and ‘floral’. The table spins in front of me and I realise that I have no time to ponder the poetics of my cup; there are another twenty three to go. I frantically sniff and write, extending my nose to the very limits of its abilities.

Next the granules are soaked, with boiled water poured over them, and a fresh round of sniffing commences. Each cup is ‘broken’ by stirring the layer of floating granules on the top of the water with a spoon, causing them to sink and release an aroma. I succeed in not inhaling any hot coffee through my wary nostrils.

It’s time for the tasting. Rachel shows us how it’s done with a cup of water for practise, sharply sucking in the liquid from a spoon with a slightly open mouth before swilling the liquid around the mouth and spitting it out into a big metal bin beside the revolving table. We try with varying degrees of success, and are firmly put in our place when one of the in house tasters demonstrates the technique, producing a sound when taking the liquid like a sheet of heavy material ripping. We are all suitably impressed.

Table revolutions begin anew, and this time I juggle the descriptions of the acidity, body and flavour of the coffee (earthy, buttery, full, bitter…) and I finish the tasting with a scruffy sheet marked seemingly randomly with descriptive words and give a rather faltering explanation to the group in Spanish as to my decisions on the best and worst coffees. I’ve fortunately managed to avoid insulting the beneficio’s coffee (it came up at number two of six), but sadly my Neanderthal palette fell foul of the cheapest and nastiest sample, which in a fit of confusion I decided was worth of the top spot.

It’s all a very interesting exercise and fascinating when you start to think about the almost infinite variations of flavours possible by tinkering with the different types of beans, blends and various stages of processing, but to be honest I’m a long way off being able to brandish lavish descriptions of something that I usually just use as a tool to pull me out of my early morning semi-comas.

Matagalpa, Nicaragua
16th October 2009

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You’ve Been a Very Bad Berry

I’ve just been introduced to the most vile fruit in existence. The nancite berry has absolutely no positive characteristics whatsoever; it has a mustardy yellow colour, chalky texture when eaten and bears an odour remarkably simular to vomit.

Rach and Simon, my able and willing guides in Nicaragua, warned me of the properties of this hell-berry, but persuaded me that it would be a suitably character building experience to try it. After a bit of nudging, I purchased a nice big glass of liquified nancite and proceeded to try and pack as much of it away as possible before the inevitable after-effects set in. Rach and Simon watched me from across the table with interest. I made it halfway down the glass before an aftertaste developed similar to that when one throws up in ones own mouth causing me to jettison the rest of the drink, making my excuses.

Surprisingly, the owner of the cafe told us that this was his most popular beverage; I suppose there’s no accounting for taste…

Esteli, Nicaragua
6th October 2009

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