Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Oh, my, I love coffee! At night, when I go to bed, I'm excited because I know that when I wake up, I'll have con au lait. Nicaragua is coffee growing country. Que bueno!

Have you ever tasted a bright red, ready-to-harvest coffee bean? I never had until Paulette handed me one and said, "Taste this." It was a burst of sweetness! Nothing like the taste of what we recognize as coffee. Lots will happen to that bean on its way to my cup. Mostly, before being roasted, it will spend a lot of time drying in the sun.

There are over 1000 coffee trees on the property that contains La Mariposa Spanish School and EcoHotel. When she bought the place, Paulette didn't know that. She didn't know it until months later when Ismael, in charge of the grounds, asked her, "What do you want to do about the coffee?" It was ready for the first harvest.

There are always two harvests of coffee beans because they don't all ripen at the same time. You can see in the photo that some of the beans are bright red and some are still green. The first harvest is more labor intensive than the second harvest because the ripe berries must be picked gently in order not to knock off those still ripening.

Well before my experience in Nicaragua, I knew that there is a strong connection between what happens in coffee production and what happens to wildlife and tropical forest diversity. I'm a bird lover. And so I make an effort to buy shade-grown coffee. In many coffee producing areas, great swaths of rain forest and other complex habitats have been destroyed in order to plant rows of coffee trees. Alone, in monoculture, coffee trees do not a forest make. When forests are cut, native birds lose their habitat, and migratory birds find that their sustenance for the journey has disappeared.

But coffee grows perfectly well in the shade, and in Nicaragua, I have seen many beautiful, lush forests with coffee growing under layers of tree canopy. In the photo at left, the leaves in the foreground are coffee trees. A little further back, you see bananas. Both are thriving in a complex ecosystem consisting of canopy, mid-story, and under-story. This is a place where wildlife can thrive as the coffee ripens and bananas take form. Harvesting the coffee is a little more labor intensive in these conditions, and so I pay a few cents more per pound for the coffee I buy in the U.S. I'm happy to do it.

I'm back in the States now. I did bring home coffee from a farm on the slopes of Volcan Mombacho, site of a marvelous cloud forest -- a significant nature preserve that is continually bathed in cloud, damp and dripping and green. On the way up the volcano in a park service truck designed for the steep haul, we stopped at the farm's coffee shop (Cafe Las Flores).

Now, dark, rich coffee from a land I am learning to love--shade grown, sun dried, deeply roasted, finely ground--waits on my countertop where I meet it joyfully every morning.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Thanksgiving Nica Style

On Thanksgiving 2009 at La Mariposa, guests, jefes, and staff--teachers, grounds keepers, cooks--gathered to share a special meal honoring the U.S. holiday. Guests insisted that the cooks, who always tend to us so well, be first in line at the hors d'oeuvres table and then at dinner. They lined up in their aprons, laughing and enjoying; the rest of us followed. After dinner, we shooed them out of the kitchen for a little dancing on the patio, and finally sent them home early, as we did our best to clean up and put things away where they might be found the next day.

It was a memorable Thanksgiving, filled with spirit, as we offered thanks for families and for friends new and old, for connections across boundaries, for the opportunity to know each other and to share the good food prepared for our table. As a guest, I felt particularly grateful for the place in which we were all gathered, for the amazing teachers who came every day to teach in animated & highly individualized ways; for the staff of La Mariposa who were also our teachers, the cocineras who taught me the names of kitchen implements and foods, the gardeners who taught me names of plants and explained patiently why they were digging a hole or trimming a bush. I was grateful for the daily privilege of encountering the Nicaraguan people, who impressed me over and over with their spirit, their skillful work, their courage in the wake of historical and economic challenges.

The event would have been wonderful and inspiring even if we had been sharing peanut butter sandwiches, but the Thanksgiving spread was a feast of vegetables, roasted chickens, a fabulous cranberry sauce. Here, Paulette stirs the pumpkin soup, which was one of my favorite parts of the meal.

And this is the ill-tempered turkey (el chompipe) that lived through Thanksgiving and continues to terrorize women who go near the kitchen's back steps. (This turkey is sexist; men go un-harassed.) Jokes about putting that turkey on the dining table ran rampant for days before the holiday, but Paulette is devoted to all her creatures, and she consistently pointed out this turkey's finer points, most notably that he will eat things that the generally omnivorous chickens will not--potato and beet peels, for example. At La Mariposa, absolutely nothing must go to waste. And so the turkey serves his purpose, living to see another Thanksgiving Day and, no doubt, another round of turkey-on-the-table jokes.