Coffee and Cycadas
Our exploring Mexico Reefs to Rockies, “In Search of Coffee, Vanilla, and Monarch Butterflies”, journey continued with an authentic (and delicious!) breakfast at the recently renovated and restored Hacienda Zimpizahua after we checked out of our hotel, Casa Real de Café. The weather was a beautiful, warm and sunny treat. We enjoyed dining al fresco and family style in the courtyard. Breakfast included sopes with frijoles, green or red chile, and queso, chicharones, huevos, bread, corn torillas, chorizo, fresh squeezed orange juice and delicious, local coffee from the nearby plantation.
The hacienda was formerly owned by the “Finca” (landowner/boss) who ran a coffee plantation. A still functioning water wheel provides nostalgia from the grand days of the Mexican coffee industry. As we followed the red tile paths around the property, we were led by our guide, Jorge, to the patio where the coffee beans used to be spread out and dried in the hot Mexican sun. Borderline slave workers would spread the beans in a single layer for drying over hot concrete and then scramble to collect it back if rain clouds rolled in. The process is more slightly efficient now, but the glamour of the coffee industry has faded as the price of coffee beans has plummeted to 3 Pesos/Kilo (~US$0.32 / pound).
The grounds of the Hacienda Zimpizahua is as beautiful as a botanical garden with orchids, air plants, a koi pond and poinsettias sprinkled throughout. From a balcony, we had a crystal clear view of Pico de Orizaba, the 19,000’ high dormant volcano. Along the road to and from what was the main reason for the road (the Hacienda), we witnessed bee hives, coffee plants (some covered with banana leaves to protect them from the recent unseasonable cold), roaming dogs and a workers strike protesting the recent developers infiltrating the region with no consideration for the landowners’ rights.
A quick drive down the road brought us back to where we had the cooking class the previous night…a local coffee plantation. We learned all about how coffee is grown, how if it is not local to the region, it doesn’t thrive as well as the local varietal, when it blooms and when the beans are red, ripe and ready to harvest. Jorge again translated for us all about the different processes and how they affect the flavors. We learned about the worms and fungi that contaminate the coffee beans causing them to be rejected by these dedicated coffee growers. The best roasted coffee beans are a matte brown, but not super dark, not shiny and have a marzipan colored line in the middle indicating the oils are still in the bean. (If the beans are shiny, all the oils have already been released along with most of the flavors).
Our coffee guide emphasized how we must be Mindful about deforestation and climate change…factors that will affect whether or not we can enjoy really good coffee in the future. Coffee plants grow best in dappled sun light with a canopy above and biodiversity all around. Coffee plantations provide homes for a plethora of flora and fauna as well as homes for hundreds of bird species.
Our coffee plantation tour concluded with an elaborate tasting where we explored the delicate, intricate flavors of the coffee either as a shot of espresso, a cappuccino, a latte, or straight out of the sifon (siphon – a process where a hot halogen light bulb heats a round flask of water and then an open topped funnel of sorts suctions the water through a filter up through the coffee grounds and then, as it cools, the coffee sifts back through to the flask ready for drinking at the perfect temperature for tasting once it’s poured in a cool, ceramic cup. Flavors of hazelnut, chocolate, vanilla and caramel swirled on our palates. Alex (the baristo) also produced some impressive latte art. Three pounds of this strictly pure and meticulously grown and processed coffee later, we were on our way…although I’m not sure how I’m getting it home!
After we had our fill of Arabica, we went to a local restaurant and I ate a lunch of the local smoked trout, rice, vegetables and brown beer. It was one of our group members’ birthday and we all sang “Buon Cumpleanos” to her and, after giggling at the relighting candles, stuffed ourselves on vanilla and prune cake (with buttercream frosting).
Our final tour of the day was of the Inecol (Instituto de Ecologia AC) Botanic Gardens. Given that this is a tour organized by the Denver Botanic Gardens, it only made sense that we would check out the local botanic gardens, chock full of tropical flora and bird life. But, the surprise was our botanic gardens’ guide, Phil, from Great Britain. Despite living in Mexico for 23 years, he still has a thick British accent…which was lovely. 🙂
By far the coolest feature of this botanic gardens was their collection of Cycadas (Cycad) – these are sturdy, fern-like plants that were around on our planet Earth at the same time as the dinosaurs, but are still around today. One of their specimens is 1500 years old. They reproduce with seeds (two types: female and male) and need to be planted close together. Other impressive stars of the show were the huge cinnamon tree (cinnamomum zeylanicum), the Camellia Sinensis tree (where all black tree comes from in various forms of aging), the wild bee hives in all sorts of shapes and sizes and the Mexican bamboo.
The day ended with a four hour long drive north along Highway 180 (a two-lane road that stretches from Texas to Cancun, Quintana Roo) and our final arrival in Guiterrez Zamora, where we stayed in Hotel Santa Lucia after dinner in a town along the way – equipped with the state police packing automatic weapons and wearing bullet proof vests. (We felt very safe).