23 Feb Colombia Trip to Origin
Standing in the middle of Plaza Botero, a plastic cup of fresh mango spiked with salt and lime in my hand, musica tropical blaring out from a passing taxi and Mercanta’s Juan Cano pointing out the city sights and I’m one very happy gringa. There can’t be many places in the world to better counteract the effects of a Scottish winter than Medellin. An explosion of colour and heat set against a dramatic backdrop of steep, forested hillsides, Colombia’s second largest city is a seriously fun place to kick off a trip to origin.
Once dubbed the most dangerous city on earth, Medellin now seems anything but. Forget Pablo Escobar and Narcos (and to be honest I think most paisas – as the citizens of Medellin and its province of Antioquia are known – are fairly tired of the association) this is a city on the up. The economy is booming and the once dangerous, isolated neighbourhoods that sprawl up the hillsides are now integrated by an amazing system of metros and cable cars that can lift you from downtown to a hill top barrio in a matter of minutes.
Fellow coffee roasters and street art at Comuna 13 – Medellin
At Comuna 13, once considered the city’s most dangerous neighbourhood we ride a system of escalators up the equivalent of 28 storeys and admire the street art and valley views. Back in the leafy neighbourhood of El Poblado we down pints of limonada de coco at bars that bring you three caipirinhas for the price of one at happy hour and hang out in the Zona Rosada with its speciality coffee shops and cool little rooftop restaurants.
Loving the traceability
Here at Glen Lyon we have a not so secret obsession with the fabulous Antioquian coffees that we source through our green importers Mercanta. With farm names that roll off the tongue like salsa melodies – La Falda, Joyeria, Mercedes, Camelia – these are coffees that we (and our customers) have fallen in love with over the years. So when Mercanta kindly invited me to visit Antioquia this January you can guess I didn’t have to think twice.
Travelling southwest out of Medellin down ruta 60 we pass the mighty peak of Cerro Bravo and cross the Rio Cauca before climbing once again into the heart of the coffee growing hills of this amazing province. Coffee grows everywhere usually on impossibly steep hillsides centred around farms – or fincas – themselves a pretty flash of colour with flower filled verandas, fruit trees and a friendly farm dog knocking about. Just give me a hammock and a good book and I’m moving in.
My kind of finca – the beautiful Santa Barbara
The Co-operativa de Caficultores de Andes (or Cooperandes) is based in the nearby town of Andes and works with about 3,500 coffee growers in the surrounding area. Most of these farms are not much more than one or two hectares in size and as well as coffee usually grow bananas and plantain (for shade as well as extra income) and often have a pig or two in the backyard. We were driven around the area by Cooperandes’ Juliana and Melissa – possibly the two coolest Colombian women I know – who took it in turns to fearlessly navigate the landcruiser along dirt tracks of hairpin bends and outrageous gradients while regaling us with stories of failed brakes and coffee adventures.
Melissa and Juliana’s intricate knowledge of the farms and the producers they work with is impressive as was the evident easy camaraderie they share with the farmers. At Finca El Clavel, Luis Giraldo told us how he composts his coffee pulp to use on his farm. Three generations of Luis’ family have farmed coffee, bananas and avocado at this beautiful farm, centred round a delightful 100 year old farmhouse at almost 2000m above sea level. At Finca Heliconia, the lovely Alexander family invited us into their kitchen to show us how they can now roast their own coffee on a stove top pan after hulling the parchment inside an inner bicycle tube. Technology at its most simple but effective. (Note to self here. Those harmless looking little yellow flies that land on your bare arms – yes they do bite and yes you will still be itching from them six weeks later.)
Luis Giraldo at Finca El Clavel
Cooking patacones – twice fried green plantain – in the outdoor kitchen at Finca El Chocho
Most varietals grown at the farms were caturra and castillo and what the farmers refer to as “dos mil” – and which, back home, we call colombia. Leaf rust is of course a worry and you could see the very occasional tree affected by roya but probably the main concern for the farmers we meet is being able to find and afford pickers during the busy harvest. Sadly, as is the case in so much of rural South America, young people are increasingly leaving the countryside and heading for the cities.
The hospitality that we encountered in each of these farms was second to none. We were welcomed with pitchers of freshly squeezed orange juice, platefuls of ripe mango and endless cups of coffee before being walked through every aspect of the production process – picking the cherries, seeing the parchment drying on the roof tops and witnessing the de-pulper in action. I was struck by just how integrated the whole coffee process is to the producers’ homes. Coffee trees are planted right up to the house and the depulpers, fermentation tanks and drying beds more often than not form a composite part of the farmhouses themselves.
Doña Isabel of Finca La Chila
One of my most memorable moments was at the delightful Finca La Chila, where the owner Don~a Isabel, is almost 90 years old. This wonderful lady is an absolute inspiration. After nimbly showing us round her beautifully maintained farm she disappeared into her kitchen and came out 15 minutes later with stacks of sweet arepas de chocolo and slabs of salty fresh cheese, a combination so damn perfect that I’m still dreaming about it a month later back home in Scotland.
We spent the night in the pretty town of Jardin, the most perfect of Latin American pueblos that could have come straight out of the pages of a Garcia Marquez novel – all plazas and pavement bars, colourful tuk tuks and moustachioed coffee farmers strolling into town at dusk. After an eventful and, for some of us, a sleepless night thanks to, and in no particular order: allergic reaction (me), burst pipe (Juan), relentless ringing of church bells (Stephen and Alda), mild carbon monoxide poisoning (Grant) we sleepily emerged into the dawn to gather ourselves at a hole in the wall cafe´ serving warm empanadas and cups of tinto (Colombian style coffee).
Two days later and back in Medellin it was an absolute pleasure to meet up once again with the wonderful Pedro Echavarria of Pergamino Cafe´ as we set off in convoy to his family’s beautiful Santa Barbara Estate a couple of hours’ drive out of Medellin.
Fiona at the Pergamino dry mill in Medellin
We’ve been roasting Santa Barbara coffees for a few years now and they are always some of our favourite Colombians to come into the roastery. It was fantastic to be able to see the wet mill at La Joyeria and see pickers bringing in the last of the season’s crop – often the only clue to their camouflaged presence among the coffee trees would be a beaten up motorbike and sacks of coffee cherry by the roadside.
At lunchtime we stopped at Finca Camelia, one of the Santa Barbara estate farms and a Glen Lyon favourite. It didn’t take long to realise why everyone is so excited about visiting this place – it turns out that the farm manager’s wife is the most fantastic cook. Here we were treated to platefuls of beans, rice, patacones – twice fried green plantain – heaped with hogao and the best chicharron (crispy pork belly) this side of the Atlantic.
Later on we watched the sun set whilst standing among the caturra trees high up on a steep hillside at Finca Veracruz before stopping off for steak and cerveza at a roadside shack on the way back to Medellin. For a coffee roaster obsessed with South America you can guess that this is pretty much as good as life gets.
Finca Veracruz at sunset