Sunday, January 30, 2011

On Venezuelan Coffee

My Venezuelan coffee pot,
courtesy of Noa, Michele, and Leonor
Earlier, I wrote about tea.  It's time to give coffee its due--and not just any coffee, but coffee from Venezuela.  (Thanks, Michele, for suggesting that I write about it.)

See, I am not all that fond of coffee.  It's usually so disappointing:  it smells fabulous, but oh, the taste--the bitterness, the sharpness.  Ugh.  So mostly I have stayed away from coffee.

And then Elizabeth went to Merida, Venezuela, for her Fulbright year in 2008 - 09.  When she came home for spring break in March of 2009, she brought back a little bit of Venezuela for everyone.  I had been dabbling with making espresso the summer before, finding that espresso mixed with generous doses of milk tasted almost like coffee smells. So Elizabeth brought me a bag of coffee that was grown and roasted by monks at a monastery located outside of Merida,  about 15,000 feet up in the Andes. 

It was love at first sip.

This coffee is so smooth, so mellow, that it glides down your throat, and it really does taste the way it smells.  I was, to say the least, hooked.  Not that it turned into a caffeine habit or anything--I can either have a cup of coffee or not, and I probably drink it three mornings out of five.  But if I do drink coffee, it pretty much has to be this.  No other coffee approaches this for taste.

Monasterio Trapense “Nuestra Señora de los Andes”
(Trappist Monastery:  Our Lady of the Andes)
Last summer, I got to visit the monastery where they grow, roast, and grind the beans.  I talked to the monks--gentle, quiet Trappists.  The drive there is literally up the side of a mountain--I was glad that Michele, my hostess, was driving (she's the one who gave me the quesillo recipe).  I'd have lost it on that winding road where it looks as though the car could just topple off the edge.

The monastery, so far from most human activity, is astonishingly quiet.  Indeed, when I got out of the car, the only sounds I could hear were the light breeze and some birds singing.  A few moments later, the monks began chanting (it was Sunday morning, and the service was beginning).

Afterwards, Michele (who knows everyone in Merida and the surrounding region) chatted with the priest who is in charge--I guess he's probably an abbot.  He was worried about a few things--friends who were in need, mutual friends of his and Michele's who were in poor health, another mutual friend who was in trouble with the government.  Despite all this, he exuded a remarkable calm.  After they caught up and visited, she introduced me to him.  I was so taken--and a bit cowed--by the atmosphere of the place and by his gentle demeanor that I hardly knew what to say.

Michele with the monk who sells the coffee.
The refectory.
A small chapel for private meditations.
Eventually, I said something about the silence at the monastery, the sense of serenity and quiet.  In such a place, I thought, you'd have the best possible chance of touching divinity.  He agreed.  "You come to a place like this," he said, "and you listen for God.  At first, all you hear are your own troubled thoughts.  But then, once you let all of that go, there God will be, saying, 'I was here all along.'"  I, who believe in almost nothing but the boundless resilience and creative energy of the human spirit, found his confidence inspiring.

The abbot and I talk of God and coffee.

Apart from personal matters, the priest was worried about something else.  New government regulations were making the production of the coffee more and more difficult.  First there were rules that meant they couldn't have too many employees, so they had to scale back their operation.  Then there were the endless challenges of shipping stuff overseas, especially to "El Imperio," Cesar Chavez's favorite epithet for the U.S.  That means that they cannot really sell the coffee in the US any more.  US sales, through a related monastery in Georgia, were an important part of their market.  Without those American sales, there isn't quite the demand there once was, though a lot of Venezuelans enjoy the monks' coffee.  The monks are men of God, not businessmen.  Business and earning money are secondary to them, so they accept the need to reduce production with equanimity.  That, too, is inspiring.

The coffee growing on the mountainside near the monastery.
And here's what the coffee looks at as it grows.

It's a shame, because Venezuela has so much to offer:  fabulous coffee (better, I think, than Colombian--but Colombia has a better publicist), the most amazing chocolate I have ever tasted, gorgeous scenery, and a rich, varied culture sustained by vivacious, generous people.  It could be a prosperous country (and it once was), but politics have gotten in the way.  It's sad, really, because it is such a wonderful place.  (Don't get me wrong:  no place deserves to be poor.  It's just that it would be so easy for Venezuela to be rich--even without oil.)

But actually, the coffee inspires happier thoughts in me than this.  I connect it with so many dear, wonderful people.  To a long list, I can now add another.  Though I have never met her (I hope to fix that in May), I admire her already:  she is the gifted potter who makes coffee pots in the particular style of Venezuela.  Her name is Leonor, and her pots have a special elegance.  It is the pleasing shape, the lissome wrought-iron stands she makes for them (others use wood, which is less graceful), and the wonderful heft of the pot (to say nothing of her signature flamboyantly scrawled across the bottom of it) that make it so special.  Noa brought me the pot in the picture at the top of this essay back in October, and it immediately assumed a privileged space on the counter.  When I use it to make coffee, I think of all of them--Noa, Leonor, the monks, Michele (of course!), and all the rest.

The pot with its sock filter in place, ready for the coffee to pour through.
Making coffee the Venezuelan way--or perhaps I should say Michele's way--is easy, and you don't need the special pot with its sock-like coffee filter made from an old t-shirt to do it.  Measure out water for the number of mugs of coffee you want (this is too good to stop at a dainty cupful), and put it in an ordinary saucepan.  Bring it to a boil.  Then, off the heat, add to the hot water a heaping tablespoon of ground coffee for each mugful.  Stir it gently, if you want.  Let it stand for a couple of minutes (most of the grounds will sink to the bottom of the pot), then pour it through a filter--a Melitta filter will work just fine.  As Michele says, putting the coffee into the hot water, rather than pouring the boiling water over the grounds, ensures that all the coffee gets wet.  It makes a delicious, mild but fully flavored cup of coffee.  Michele likes to add dry milk--a large spoonful per mug--to the bottom of the pot before she pours the coffee through.  I prefer to add heated milk to mine.  Either way, it's delicious.

Sometimes I make the coffee in the espresso maker, and this too is glorious.  I wish you could try it (it's a little mean to talk about it when this coffee is so hard to get)--trust me, it's fabulous.  You'd never accept anything else.

But in the end, it's not so much how the coffee tastes--wonderful as that is--that makes it so special.  Well, that does make it special, but the people I think about when I drink it make it even more so.  I have been dabbling in writing poetry since the spring, so I tried to capture this in a poem:


There is a legion in this cup,
a host revives with every sip:

My sagacious, intrepid daughter,
returning in spring from the Andes of Venezuela,
first presented me this coffee as a gift, a memento
of her grand sojourn into worlds and words unknown—
she with her idealistic, questing spirit is there
(and so is her sister, for I cannot think of one without the other).

Soft-spoken monks grow the beans on the slopes of those soaring mountains.
A wise priest leads them; he spoke of God
as we perched beside the monastery,
two ageing mountain goats in the windy stillness—
the spirits of the monks and priest
rise on the steam like smoke from a censer.

An American expatriate taught me to steep it perfectly;
we drank the coffee from stoneware mugs
on  the cool, serene veranda behind her house
in a village nestled at the foot of Pico Bolivar one soft June morning—
she and that morning surround me,
and I can smell the scented air.

To a friend who loves coffee
I gave some that I brought home in my suitcase.
Like a trader carrying precious cargo in a spice caravan, I bore it home
and sent it with a mug and a note explaining how to make it flawlessly—
that friend frolics in the milk
as it swirls and eddies into the mug and rises to the top like sea foam.

A woman who lives on the road to the páramo
fashions pots of a unique design.
Another friend brought me one of them: it stands in my kitchen
so that I pour the coffee from a pot made from the earth where the beans grow—
potter, friend, and soil;
all are here.

But most of all,
there is you.
We sit sipping the dusky, mellow warmth,
marshalling a militia of memories
and speaking softly to one another
of those we love.

Next time you have something you connect with loved ones, think of them; speak of them.  There is nothing more important than that:  not coffee, not pots, and certainly not politics.  It's the people and the relationships that matter.