Taking on Peru’s high altitudes to reach the coffee plantations was the hardest part! From 1600 to 1700 metres above sea level, with some crossings going up as high as 4300 m, travel was complicated due to trails and roads that were often unpaved. In an off-road vehicle, it can take an hour or more just to cover five miles! Road conditions are a big problem for small cooperatives, which generally use mules to transport coffee cherries from high-altitude plantations to the nearest beneficio (the location on the coffee farm where freshly-harvested coffee cherries are brought to start the first step in the process).
The people are generous and welcoming and, despite their rather modest homes, they welcome you with incredible dignity, always happy to share a meal with guests. In exchange, I taught them how to use a moka coffee pot, something they had never used before. I was in Cusco, at 3400 m above sea level. Reaching 2400 m to admire Machu Picchu was the biggest thrill of all. It was astonishing – it literally takes your breath away!
From what I saw, the country was clean and tidy, welcoming and hospitable. Coffee harvesting businesses are still a bit behind the times, trying to adopt the most advanced modern production methods, but are still in the research phase. For this reason, various cooperatives led by women have also cropped up with the goal of expanding the industry. For example, I met Maggie Kagimbayi from a company called SACOF, in the Gisenyi quarter of Karambi Village. Courageous women like Maggie are seeking to lead companies thanks in part to the support of the IWCA (International Women’s Coffee Alliance), which promotes the growth of farming projects by providing insurance coverage to workers and offering educational opportunities to their children. The aim is to promote Rwandan coffee in international markets and to sell it at the right price point.
The Rwandan people are incredibly strong, which I realised after visiting the Genocide Museum in Kigali. It was truly moving and difficult to see the atrocities of the genocide, even 20 years after the fact. However, it also offered insight into how Rwanda has managed to rebuild after the devastating massacres it endured.
In Honduras we saw particularly nice cherries, the most beautiful we ever saw. Red, solid, marvellous. Their ripeness was incredibly uniform. Honduras is a beautiful country and has been a fantastic producer for the last 10 years: it had a great technological development and continues to invest in its coffee market, which is relatively young compared to the other South American countries. In this sector they are less tied to traditions and they are fresher, faster and more modern. They study how to create the best conditions for farming: sun, ground, climate. The yield per hectare is higher. Rainforest Alliance is well settled here.
In Honduras you have to take precautions for your personal safety. The hacienda where we stayed offered us an armed escort, even inside the plantation, where whole families worked.
In this plantation there was a small area surrounded by orange groves: here El Naranjal, a precious coffee cru that is produced for only 60 bags per year, is cultivated. Needless to say, if you want one of these bags you have to reserve it.
The Naranjal farmer is called Arnold Paz, agricultural engineer who studied in the US. He is developing new working methods, different from the common ones, and long processes that include passages in wood cases.
These methods are shared with all the other producers, because Arnold knows that with a larger customer attraction, the whole region will benefit from it, including himself. He also knows that his peculiarity is his terroir. Sharing technical knowledge does not threaten competitiveness.
All the plantations are far from the cities, they are completely immersed into the nature. And in Colombia geography is arduous. This means long bus or jeep trips, or waiting at the pueblos traffic lights, where you may meet some hormigas culonas (a typical local snack) sellers. I have not tried them… for now I still prefer coffee to fried ants!
Daterra is a Brazilian fazenda in Minas Gerais, the country of mines. It is big, meticulously organized and has various kinds of coffee. It was the first farm to be certified by Rainforest Alliance. There we saw mechanical harvesting for the first time. This should explain how far we are from industrial productions…Daterra supplies us since 2011. They are very friendly and hospitable, they dedicate a small tree called ipe branco to every guest. We welcomed them at our coffee roasting plant in Bologna for a workshop on technical tasting.
Biodiversity is expressed in the variety of plants and animals that populate the plantations: in Brazil, for example, it is represented by ant eaters in the midst of the rows.
In Brazil we also saw the so-called nurseries, huge greenhouses where small plants of coffee grow during their early years before getting transplanted in the fields.
Coffee flowers are white, they resemble jasmine’s for their intense fragrance. Their blooming is even more enchanting than that of cherry trees. My first trip to India was magnificent. I must admit that being surrounded by the scents of the plantations is the most exciting part of my job.
In India every work step is diligently performed and is also extremely elegant: women, with their colourful dresses, sit on the ground with such a natural posture we do not even know in the western culture, and carefully select the coffee beans, eliminating the broken or imperfect ones. It is a long and hard job that they transform in exquisite lightness.
Coffee farmers are a big family: the production processes can change from continent to continent, details and uses may vary, but the recognizable, palpable passion people have is the same everywhere. Getting to the plantation after a long trip is always a magical and welcoming moment. In India I have been hosted by the farmers that I visited and I have always had dinner with their family.
Bean drying can be eased by short passages in ovens powered by pruning branches from the plantations. This is what I saw in Brazil. In certain areas they perform ground drying in patios or outdoors, while in other areas I saw the so-called “African beds”, or raised meshes on which seeds are dried.
In India, plantations are surrounded by tea, cocoa, pepper and vanilla plants which have their roots in the same soil. Often, in India, indigenous farmers go barefoot into the flora in order to pick the coffee cherries. It is important to remember that among the flora there is the fauna: spiders, snakes, cobras and other nice beasts. I prefer to wear long-sleeved shirts… It is the price to pay for hand-picked coffee.
In Panama City you have to watch out for fake cops. Criminality is common in these areas. In the profession I chose there are some inconveniences, but when I get to the plantations everything changes and I realize it was worth it. Many years after my first trip, seeing coffee plants still excites me. Its fruits resemble cherries for their shape and colour, sometimes they are yellow. The pulp is sugary, the peel is thick.
One of my first plantation trips was in the Dominican Republic: an interesting tour that included a visit of the tobacco plantations. Latin America, besides great coffee types, has surely a very interesting life pace. Hammocks, patios and “bells”. The bell strategy was invented in the Dominican Republic, where during the hottest hours of the day the temperature is boiling, so it is not surprising to find workers resting a while in the shadow. From the haciendas offices the bell rings and workers promptly come back to lay coffee beans.