Friday, 17 August 2012

Coffee and Witchcraft

Up yours, Starbucks. That goes for you as well, Nero and Costa. I have been up on the mountain (literally) and found the ultimate cup of Joe.

           Marcelina was my next door neighbour in the mountain village of Rio Limpio, ten miles from the Haitan border. She was a witch, or so it was widely claimed, but the only magic she ever showed me was my morning coffee. I know she wouldn’t mind me sharing her secret.  Anyway, I’m too far away in time and distance to worry about spells and potions.

          The local coffee was of the Robusta cultivar, not the Arabica that everyone seems to go for these days. The trees are actually a type of cherry, and harvesting the fruits could involve some climbing. They grew half wild on the slopes behind my house. When the berries were ripe, I used to slip on them en route to the outhouse. You can eat them, but the skins are bitter.

          When harvested, the berries were tossed onto the road, where passing donkeys and humans trod on them, birds pecked them and the sun dried out the flesh, leaving white seeds everywhere.  These are coffee beans. After a week or so, you could go out to the road and shovel them into a sack, along with the dust and other pollutants, and wash them clean.

          Every morning, Marcelina would take a double handful and dump them onto a cast iron skillet set on an open fire, where the smoke could get at them. She would add a big lump of raw sugar from the local cane fields and roast them until nearly black. Then she put them into a hollowed-out stump from a Bruscon tree and pounded them to pulp with a six-foot log, called a pilon. Pounding in a pestle and mortar, she told me, is always better than grinding the beans. If you are ever offered café de pilon, accept it. And give thanks.

          She put the pulp into an old nylon sock, tied the top around a stick and then hung the mixture in a pan of boiling water until the colour pleased her. My cup was the least chipped enamel one. The handle was too hot to hold, so I drank it with my hand in my shirttail. No sugar needed.  And no milk.  Ever.

          I just stopped writing this for five minutes, went across the road and got an Americano from a trendy café. Sorry, Marcelina. I should have known better.

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