Medellín, The Land of Coffee

“Coffee was considered a medicine.  It was prescribed for tuberculosis, smallpox, scurvy, dropsy, and eye inflammation. But doctors warned their patients never to drink their coffee with milk because the mixture was believed to cause leprosy.”

-translated from a blog entry from El Laboratorio de Café, which was translated from Heinrich Eduard Jacob’s Coffee: The Epic of a Commodity, 1935

This Christmas, I am visiting familia in the land of coffee, the Antioquia region of Colombia.  They don’t mess around with local food around here, and coffee is taken seriously around these parts.  Coffee thrives here in this mountainous climate so close the equator.  The weather fluctuates between 60 and 80 degrees all year long.  El Laboratorio de Café is one of the most serious local coffee peddlers.

Coffee growing country.

I drink a lot of coffee these days.  At home, I have a stovetop Italian-style espresso maker that makes six cups of espresso at one go.  And these days, I drink it with milk.  Milk and coffee is a new thing for me, mostly because of the Southern-style, Mississippi girl machismo that I’ve been carrying around most of my life.  When I compromised by inner coffee toughness, I wasn’t aiming to usher leprosy into my life and body.  My Italian teacher mentioned that milk helps the stomach handle the acidity of coffee.  Also, milk tastes good in coffee.

Even with milk, six shots of espresso in a morning is pushing the boundaries of what is socially acceptable.  I go through coffee-drinking ritual phases that fluctuate in response the the seasons of the year.  In the summers, I taper off my coffee drinking.  The sun is a good substitute for caffeine, and I don’t have any students to unjustly bear the effects of caffeine withdrawal headaches.  But, come winter time, when the sun seems gone forever, and the wooden floors are so cold in the dark, dark morning, and all I want out of life is to sleep the days away until the sun comes back, then I switch back to six shot Italian espresso maker from the relatively benign summertime French press.


Some kind of steampunk cold brew coffee-making contraption at El Laboratorio de Café

I prefer my espresso maker and my French press.  My methods of coffee brewing are the methods that give me oily, thick coffee.

I bought two pounds of Antioquia coffee from El Laboratorio:  Finca los Naranjos and Variedad Blue Mountain Special Reserve.  On the back of each type of coffee is lots and lots of information about the types of coffee.

I drank coffee prepared in a siphon for the first time in El Laboratorio de Café, even though there are multiple hipster locals around Houston that serve coffee in siphons.

Let’s start with the Finca los Naranjas.  This coffee comes from the Caicedo area within the Antioquia region.  It won 1st place in the Best Cup of Coffee Competition of 2014.  The trillado date for my coffee was December 9, 2016.  My brother explained trillado- it’s the process of separating the dried green coffee beans from their papery sheath.  We call this the hulling process.  Medium acid, intense body, and an aroma of sugar cane and intense chocolate. The flavor is honey, fruit, and brown sugar.  It’s a mix of 80% Caturra coffee and 20% Bourbon.   The coffee process was fermentation, plus water, plus sun.  We call this “wet process.”  The beans were grown at an altitude of 1830 meters above sea level, or 6000 feet.  My coffee is the November 2016 harvest, and it was roasted on December 15, 2016.  I bought it on December 24, 2016.  I should drink it before June 15, 2017, which I don’t anticipate being a problem.  When you drink six cups of espresso every morning for breakfast, you go through some coffee.

The Variedad Blue Mountain Reserva Especial comes from Valparaíso, Antioquia.  It was honey processed instead of wet processed, which has an impact on the amount of acidity.  The honey process results in less acid than the wet process, and El Laboratorio de Café describes the acidity level as “milky.”  Medium bodied, with an aroma of fruit, honey, and brown sugar, and a flavor of red fruit.  It was grown at 1800 meters above sea level, or 5905 feet on the Jardin Real Finca, which is an experimental farm that partners with El Laboratorio.  Blue Mountain coffee, usually the expensive darling of Jamaican tourists, isn’t typically grown in Colombia.  My coffee is the May 2016 harvest, hulled on December 2nd and roasted on December 13th.

I remember a snippet from The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis from my childhood.  The Prince is underneath the earth and the dwarfs who live underground and harvest jewels stop him as he is escaping back onto the right side of the dirt.  The tell him to wait, that they can show him what real living diamonds and rubies taste like.  The things that we know to be diamonds and rubies are only the cast-off shells of the living fruits of the earth.  And the Prince is tempted by the prospect of tasting and drinking living rubies and diamonds.

Another steampunk coffee contraption, only this one is over 100 years old.

I keep a mental inventory of the foods that I tasted fresh for the first time, and it felt like I was tasting the living thing.  The first time I tasted fresh olive oil, the first time I tasted fresh green beans, the first time I tasted fresh grapefruit juice, and now this coffee, here in Antioquia.  Coffee here is more alive than other places, even places with a hard and fast coffee-drinking culture, like France and Italy.  Here, there is so much more variety and the drink is connected to the crop.  You can taste the freshness in the coffee.  It tastes alive, and it makes other coffee taste stale, like the cast-off shells of the real coffee.

The milk comes in this bag with this person’s mustachioed face.

And, as a post-script, I’d like to mention that the coffee isn’t the only thing that has been redefined for me as a more alive taste.  The milk is more alive here, and it makes the phantom threat of leprosy worth it.  It comes in plastic bags, and it smells like no other milk I’ve ever smelled, which is to say, the milk here actually has a smell. I can taste the mountain grass eaten by the Colombian cows when I drink this milk. 

Santa Elena, Colombia

On the ride from the airport in Medellín to the finca in Santa Elena, my brother, Josh, pointed out a restaurant on the side of the road.  “I ate there last night,” he said.  “It was pretty good.  Everything I ate came from around here.  And I mean around here.”  He made a circular motion with his pointer finger.  “All these places serve local food, and they don’t advertise it or anything, it’s just the way things are around here.  The food is real simple though.  Not what you’d call imaginative cuisine.”

Patatas Criollas.

“What’d you eat?”

“Chicken with mushrooms, a green salad, and french fries.”

“Was the chicken local?”


“And the mushrooms?”

“I don’t know, but the potatoes were.  I saw them hanging from the ceiling.”

Uchuvas, blackberries, and strawberries.

The locally grown potatoes are small, waxy, yellow potatoes known as patatas criollas.  Santa Elena is 2000 meters above sea level.  Strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries grow here, but they are unlike our strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries.  The blueberries are called mortiños, and they taste like a cranberry-ish blueberry.  Lalo is another local fruit, and uchuvas.  And coffee.  The best Colombian coffee grows here, in the Antioquia region of Colombia.


This is coffee growing country.  Behind the finca, there is a slope that drops away, revealing layers of mountain.  The farther away the mountain, the bluer the mountain gets and the less visible detail.

I remember that lyric, “Everything looks perfect from far away,” from “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service.  Now, after getting to know these mountains, I know that I disagree.  Everything looks smoother from far away and the distance forces the eye to see the form instead of the details.  The farthest parts of the mountain are barely distinguishable from the sky.  Here, the clouds touch the land and run through the valleys.  These mountains respond to the sky.

Bandeja paisa is a typical dish around these parts.  Mine had beans, white rice, fried egg, chorizo, chicharron, and a salad.



The Great Procrastination Elixir

I have so many papers to grade.  Christmas vacation is four days away, but I can’t see that far ahead because a large stack of ungraded papers is obstructing my view.  Next Monday, I’m flying to Medellin, in Colombia, but it feels like next Monday is next year because I am measuring time by the mass of ungraded papers between the moment when I first walk on South American soil and this moment that I am living right now.

I experience procrastination as a sort of fighting dance between the different impulses that drive my behavior.  My different motivations, fears, responsibilities, wills, and work ethics pirouette and caper around the stage that is my mind.   The music sounds like this.  When I procrastinate, I search out articles that point to the benefits of procrastination.  As long as the procrastination ballet is going on in my head, these articles have the virtue of presenting me with a convenient version of reality.  Other articles exist, articles that proclaim procrastination as the root of all the evil in the world.  I don’t read those articles.

My favorite argument used to justify procrastination asserts that procrastinators actually get more done in those eternal moments when they are casting about for something to do, anything to do, as long as it’s not the thing they must do.

Today, I wrote a couple of pages of thinking about a business matter, and I sent an email related to the same business matter.  The email was 1/10th the length of the first stream of consciousness draft of thinking.  I renewed overdue library books, then I went to the library to return already-read books.  I laughed at this little McSweeney’s gem.   I leafed through a couple more chapters of The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, a book I bought about 15 years ago when I was in high school.  Turns out, the man has some illuminating points to make about sentence structure.  And I started writing a blog entry about procrastination.

I have only one final task, a task to bridge the distance between the not-doing and the doing.  I will make hot chocolate in hopes that the chocolate will soothe the angry battling dancers and put an end to the twisting war raging inside me.

Like oranges, bread, and wine, chocolate is one of those foods that have gathered so many cultural associations that the food itself has become a mythological archetype.   Drinking chocolate is a thirty-eight century old ritual, a ritual that once belonged only to the gods and the warriors.  We don’t know the name of the civilization that gave us the complex process we use to turn cacao pods into chocolate.  The Europeans inherited chocolate from the Aztecs, the Aztecs inherited from the Mayans, the Mayans inherited it from the Olmecs, and the Olmecs learned the process from an unknown people.

Chocolate includes two important alkaloids, two different substances that affect our experience of the world:  caffeine and theobromine.  Caffeine is a stimulant, and theobromine we don’t understand at all.  Some articles that I like to read say that theobromine has a “positive effect on the mood and alertness.”  Other articles say that theobromine has no effect on the mood, but I don’t read those articles.   “Theobromine” translates as “the drink of the gods.”  In Ancient Aztec culture, a cacao pod was symbolic for the human heart, possibly because both held precious liquids:  chocolate and blood.



Hot Chocolate Procrastination Elixir

You will need:

  • unsweetened cocoa powder
  • a few grindings of black pepper
  • a few swigs of vanilla extract
  • sugar to taste
  • milk

I don’t really have a recipe for this.  I heat up the milk over the range and whisk the cocoa powder in.  Sometimes I use cayenne powder, cinnamon, or nutmeg.  This time around, I used one Demerara sugar cube per cup.  Sometimes I use more, sometimes I use less.


If you are interested in learning more about the ancient symbolic origins of chocolate, I strongly recommend The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe.  Sophie, the author, was a scholar and a lover of research who scoured the papal libraries and museums of Rome for texts that mentioned chocolate.  She died of cancer before she published her book,  Michael, her widower, finished up the text and saw the book through publication.  Tastes of Paradise by Wolfgang Schivelbusch also has some good commentary on the culture of drinking chocolate in European.

Time to drink the chocolate and face the ungraded papers.