El Trapiche Coffee Tour in Monteverde, Costa Rica

If you love coffee as much as I do, a coffee tour in Monteverde is a must-do item to put on your bucket list! After doing a bunch of research and asking a few people who had done both of the main coffee-chocolate-sugarcane tours here (Don Juan, and El Trapiche), I decided to do the El Trapiche tour. It’s a family-owned business and the reviews on any and all review sites are absolutely glowing; as it turns out, with good reason!

The tour costs USD$33, which includes being picked up from and dropped off to your accommodation; an extensive explanation about coffee, sugarcane and cacao; and quite a few tastings. The guide I had, Jairo, was incredibly patient, polite and knowledgeable.

Along the way we got to taste a multitude of things, including a raw coffee berry we picked off the coffee trees ourselves; guaro made on the premises; sugar syrup, taken straight out of a vat where it was bubbling away, dipped into cold water, and formed into a thin, chewy, very sweet wafer; sugarcane, peeled and chewed to extract the juice; sugar syrup again, this time rapidly stirred to aerate it until it formed a hard ball; raw cacao bean; roasted cacao nibs; crushed unsweetened cacao; chocolate with freshly crushed cacao; lemonade made from brown sugar grown and processed on the premises; black coffee made traditionally from coffee grown on the premises; and arracacha.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

An arracacha plant

The Tour

We started our tour learning a little about a few plants we came upon along the way to the coffee plantation, including banana, plantain, macadamia, and arracacha.

We learned that sugarcane is related to bamboo, and originally came from India, which was news to me! Among the interesting facts we learned about sugarcane was the fact that it matures after about a year, when it should be cut down for use or it will die. The roots of the plant keep living and a new plant will sprout after the harvest. Only the main trunk of the plant is useable for human consumption; the leaves and other offcuts are often fed to oxen who work on the plantations. We saw sugarcane growing, and then two ways of extracting the juice from the cane – the old-school oxen-powered press (called a trapiche), and the newer water-wheel. We saw the juice cooking to thicken into syrup, and then we were split into groups to stir oxygen into the syrup until it thickened into a solid. These hands-on elements of the tour really made it stand out and made it so much more fun and interesting than expected!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A trapiche in action

From sugarcane we moved on to coffee, where our guide talked us through and showed us most of the process from the plant to peeling, drying, separating, and roasting the beans. We learned about the different ways of processing coffee, and the differences between Arabica and Robusta coffee. Apparently Arabica coffee has a much better flavour and is much more popular, but Robusta is (as its name suggests) much more robust and easier to grow; plus it has more caffeine. Costa Rica only produces 1% of the world’s coffee, but it is the only coffee-producing nation in the world that exports 100% Arabica coffee, with no Robusta coffee sold for exportation. We also learned that espresso, although tasting stronger, actually contains less caffeine than other ways of preparing coffee that involve more water, such as percolated coffee or using a French press! Almost all of our group was fascinated to learn this, myself included!

We moved on to cacao at the end of the tour, where we saw a plant growing, and then learned about the process of fermenting, drying, and roasting cacao, to turn it into the product most of us know and love more than any other – chocolate!

As it turns out, coffee was originally introduced from Ethiopia to America, and there is now more coffee grown in America than Africa. Conversely, cacao originated in America; but there is now more cacao produced in Africa than the Americas! In fact, the country that produces the most cacao in the world is Côte d’Ivoire!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A cacao pod growing on a cacao tree

The Tastings

The coffee berry was surprisingly sweet; you chew the flesh off the berry and then discard the bean within – a raw coffee bean is not too tasty, and it’s very hard. The guaro (which the guide himself described as moonshine) turned out to be about 60% abv, and actually tasted nicer than the most widely-known guaro brand in Costa Rica, Cacique. In case you’re wondering, guaro is a clear spirit made from sugarcane, very similar to white rum. It usually sits around 30% abv. El Trapiche only makes guaro for samples for people attending their tours, and does not sell it.

The two types of sugar syrup we had (both in liquid and solid forms) were obviously very sweet; as they were made straight from real sugarcane syrup that had just been pressed, they were caramel in colour and tasted quite a lot like molasses. They were so much more flavoursome than the sugar syrup you might be used to seeing in bars, which is made from refined white sugar, which has had the molasses extracted and had therefore lost that complexity of flavour. Biting into a stick of sugarcane was something I had never done before, and it was really interesting to taste the flavour of sugar as it changed from its original, purest form, to a cooked form, to an aerated version of the cooked form; and compare all of these to the sugar we are used to having in our kitchens at home.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sugarcane syrup after being manually aerated

When it came time to learn about cacao, we were given a cacao seed from the inside of a cacao pod to taste. It’s covered in a kind of substance that you are told to suck on, and it tasted to me so much like lychee I was astounded at the resemblance. The inside of the seed doesn’t taste like too much at all, surprisingly. Once it was roasted, however, we tasted some cacao nibs (which are extracted from inside the roasted seed), which were quite bitter, but not as bad as most of us in the tour group had expected. The next stage of tasting was the roasted cacao nibs, crushed into a paste. This was awful. It was terribly bitter and my tastebuds absolutely did not care for it! The next step more than made up for it, though! We were given freshly made chocolate, which was the cacao paste mixed with milk, and then sugar. It was delightful; I couldn’t believe the difference between commercial chocolate and fresh chocolate made from scratch – yum!

Arracacha looks like a celery plant, but it is only the root of the plant that is eaten, usually chopped up and cooked with mashed potato, spices, and meat; then served on small tortillas as a taco. We were told that these are usually served at special occasions, like weddings and birthdays. At the end of our tour we were given one to try, which was really lovely! We had these alongside the lemonade, which was far too sweet for me, but it was very interesting to taste the difference between lemonade made from scratch with brown sugar processed on the premises, and lemonade bought in the shops – they are absolutely nothing alike. The coffee we were given was amazingly smooth, and naturally sweet, which was a lovely surprise.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A traditional Costa Rican coffee-making contraption – you put the ground coffee and hot water in the top and let it drip through; it makes for delicious coffee!

After the two and a half hour tour and tastings, we were shown to the shop, where we could taste more coffee, and buy any products we liked. I tasted each of the coffees on offer, and was amazed at the difference between them. There were also body products which used the plantation’s coffee; chocolate; liqueurs; and a few other souvenirs for sale. We made our purchases and were on our way back home. Seven hours later, I am still totally buzzing from the enormous quantity of caffeine and sugar I consumed today, and still totally impressed with how incredible the tour was! I would definitely recommend spending a morning there, and I would come back again!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sugarcane

El Trapiche Tour

Tours Available:    Monday – Saturday, 10am and 3pm; Sunday, 3pm

A: Carretera Monterverde a Tilarán, Provincia de Puntarenas, Costa Rica

P: (506) 2645-77-80 or (506) 2645-76-50

E: reservaciones@eltrapichetour.com

W: http://www.eltrapichetour.com/index.html

F: https://www.facebook.com/El-Trapiche-Tour-114997261844220/

11 Tasty Delights to Try in Mexico

Mexico is undoubtedly one of the culinary capitals of the world. The food is full of flavour, diverse, and cheap! Here are some of my favourites from my two months there.

  1. Cafe de Olla – Coffee with cinnamon, piloncillo (unrefined Mexican cane sugar), and sometimes orange peel. It’s very sweet, quite strongly flavoured, and a very interesting twist on your morning coffee!
  2. Chilaquiles – This dish is like nachos, but better! It starts with a base of chips (like nachos), and is then covered in sauce of your choice. Usually your choices are salsa verde – a green sauce based on tomatillos (which are a Mexican member of the tomato family, but smaller, with a papery husk around them, and quite tart in flavour), with chili and other spices; salsa roja – based on red tomatoes, with chili and other spices; or mole (my personal favourite; pronounced “mole-ay”) – a phenomenal sauce traditionally involving over thirty ingredients, including several different types of chili, chocolate, and spices. The chilaquiles usually come with shredded chicken or fried eggs, avocado, slices of onion, and a crumbly cheese. I often enjoyed this incredibly tasty dish for breakfast/brunch in my beautiful temporary hometown of Puebla, always with mole and huevos (eggs) – yum!!

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Chilaquiles con mole y huevos

  3. Esquites – a cup of corn kernels, served with mayonnaise, chili powder, chili sauce, and lime juice. The corn is traditionally boiled in salted water, and then sautéed, before being scooped into a polystyrene cup and topped with whichever toppings you choose. Beware of the chili options: they are HOT!
  4. Mezcal – an absolute must-try for those over 18 in Mexico! Mezcal is an agave-based spirit, commonly misunderstood as a worse or cheaper version of tequila. In fact, there are many differences between the two, and mezcal ends up being a much more diverse and interesting spirit. Tequila can only be made from one type of agave, mezcal can be made from many. Mezcal can be smoky, earthy, sweet, spicy, or a combination. It’s incredible, fascinating, delicious, and my new favourite spirit! Start with espadín; it’s the most common and will give you an idea of whether or not you like mezcal.

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Different mezcales from Oaxaca

  5. Agua de sabores – Sweet, flavoured water. You can buy a large cup or an enormous cup, always for a very cheap price, and there are tons of different (really interesting) flavours. My absolute favourite is agua de jamaica (hibiscus, pronounced “ha-may-ca”), which is tart but sweet and always delicious and refreshing!
  6. Mexican cerveza – You might have tried Corona or Sol, maybe even Negra Modelo; but you have to try Indio, Bohemia (their Oscura dark beer is lovely!), and any others you come across!

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Delicious Indio beer

  7. Tejocote – This is a delicious small orange coloured fruit, it looks like an apricot, but tastes like applesauce! In Mexico it’s really quite common, and you can find it in ice-cream form (a MUST try), or whole cooked fruit in syrup from street vendors, usually served in a cup for ridiculously cheap prices. It quickly became one of my favourite fruits; so different to anything we have at home and an absolutely sensational treat!
  8. Chile en nogada – This traditional dish consists of a whole poblano chili stuffed with various ingredients; mainly fruits, spices, and often shredded meat; then topped with a walnut-based sauce and pomegranate seeds. It is a renowned traditional dish from Puebla, and the dish is interestingly made up of the three colours of the Mexican flag – the green chili, white sauce, and red pomegranate seeds. It’s best to try this in season, as the dish is far tastier and more fresh when eaten in August and September (from what I’ve heard). I was able to find a restaurant serving them while I was there in January, and had to give it a try. It’s amazing how the flavours complement each other, but it was too rich for me, and would be best for two people to share as a starter to get an idea of the flavours but not feel overwhelmed at the end.

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Chile en nogada

  9. Chocolate caliente – Hot chocolate; it’s best if you can try this in Oaxaca where the best chocolate in the country comes from. Bonus points if you can watch it being made in the traditional way – with a large spoon that looks like an enormous honey dipper, rapidly twirled in a large jug of hot water or milk, until the chocolate has melted and mixed in. The hot chocolate tastes totally different to anything I’ve tried before, and was addictive, delicious, and perfect to warm up on a chilly Oaxacan evening!
  10. Crema de mezcal – These creamy liqueurs are the texture of Baileys, and come in many different flavours. If you walk through the main streets of Oaxaca, you will hear offers of “mezcal o crema de mezcal?” extremely often. It’s worth trying a few; the flavours can be really interesting and tasty! I prefer standard mezcal, but it was interesting to try this drink I’d never heard of before!
  11. Quesillo – This is a stringy white cheese, made in Oaxaca. It’s totally unlike anything else, and is amazing! Salty, a little rubbery, but totally delicious when melted and served on a torta (sandwich), taco, or any of the other many things you can try it on!

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    A bowl of quesillo – in the background is the strips; in the bowl is the aftermath of pulling it into thin strings

There are many different kinds of food and drink available in Mexico that you won’t find anywhere else; the basic rule of thumb is that you should try everything! Particularly food or drink traditionally found in the region you’re in – there are many. In Puebla, there are several different types of sandwich, and several different types of bread; you should try everything you can! Tortas are cheap, filling and delicious; cemitas are a type of sandwich served on an eggy bread roll similar to brioche; you also obviously have to try tacos, and everything else!

One tip: if you’re not a huge chili fan, the phrase “sin picante, por favor” is crucial – “without chili, please”.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Blue corn tacos being prepared with quesillo and meat