Saborea Puerto Rico: A Culinary Extravaganza
The Great Chefs of Puerto Rico
By Carol M. Bareuther, RD
"Without my morning coffee I'm just like a dried up piece of roast goat."
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) The Coffee Cantata
If you can empathize with Bach and are in search of a good cup of coffee, I mean a really good brew, then look no farther than Puerto Rico. For over three hundred years, this U.S. commonwealth island has enjoyed a reputation for producing some of the best java in the world. Today, even though Puerto Rico isn't a global force in the coffee arena and this decadent black brew no longer contributes a gulp of funds to the local treasury, the coffee that Puerto Rico produces has not diminished in flavor, nor in admiring aficionados, over time.
Native to Ethiopia, coffee was first introduced to Puerto Rico in 1736 by Spanish immigrants. These folks relegated this bitter bean to a secondary status economically and instead concentrated on sugar production in the island's fertile valleys during much of the 18th century. Then, during the early 19th century, events in Europe forced a migration of residents from the French Mediterranean island of Corsica. The Corsicans were abruptly told that if they wanted to farm, they'd have to head for the hills as no farmland was available in the valleys. Little did the Spaniards know that the over one hundred inches of rain per year made this ground fantastically fertile for coffee and that the mineral-rich soil provided the nutrients that gave Puertoricano coffee its distinctively delicious personality. Thus, the Corsicans did as they were told, settled in the southwestern mountains and established a town in Yauco. By the 1860s, these hard workers quickly grew coffee production into a major economic force on the island and grew the island's coffee contribution dollar wise to the sixth largest in the world.
Two devastating hurricanes hit Puerto Rico in 1898 and destroyed the coffee industry. It took farmers a full two years to recover, and see their product rise to favor with such luminaries as President Theodore Roosevelt who requested the super premium grades served at official White House state dinners. Yes, Puerto Rican coffee farmers were soon dealt a double blow. First, high tariffs prevented European nations from importing the island's java and secondly, the U.S. put pressure on the island for sugar production while sticking by a long-standing agreement to buy the bulk of the nation's coffee from Brazil. Market opportunities for Puerto Rican coffee thus began to dry up quickly.
The 20th century was not a stimulating time for Puerto Rico's coffee industry either. The traditional agrarian society that dominated Puerto Rico's economy moved away from coffee during the early 1900s, and by the mid-1900s, workers had started to opt for jobs in more lucrative sectors as pharmaceuticals, computers, high-tech electronics, tourism, and professional services. This has resulted in the industry currently having about one-third the number of workers it did 50 years ago. According to 2005 figures from the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture, a total of 9,845 coffee farmers operate 10,200 coffee plantations on some 56,000 acres. The average island coffee farm ranges in size between two and five acres and coffee pickers earn between $100 and $150 a week unless they are picking ripe beans for gourmet brands, in which case they make between $125 and $175 a week.
The three biggest roasters, Yaucono, Café Rico and Café Crema control 70 percent of the coffee production in Puerto Rico. Total production in 2005, according to Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture figures, was 22.50 million pounds of beans with 2.58 million pounds or 11 percent of the total harvested sent to export markets. Exports primarily targeted the specialty coffee trade, while the majority of coffee grown on the island is consumed at home.
One of the best ways to savor Puerto Rican coffee, both as a present day brew and bygone industry, is to celebrate with the locals during an annual coffee festival and to tour historic sights such as Hacienda Buena Vista.
February is the ripe time to travel to Maricao, a little town nestled between two mountain ranges in the southwest of the island. The annual coffee festival held here dates back to the 18th century when local hacienda owners hosted a feast for their workers to commemorate the end of the harvest. Over three days the town's main plaza is choc-a-bloc with food and drinks stalls, with cups running over withy free java for all and plenty of coffee roasting demonstrations. For more information, call 787-838-2290.
Visit Hacienda Buena Vista, 10 miles north of Ponce, anytime. Considered one of Puerto Rico's best remaining examples of a coffee plantation, this landmark consists of an 87-acre agricultural complex constructed in the mid-19th century. The hacienda's principle buildings, which you can view on guided tours offered in Spanish and English, include the hacienda manor house, a carriage house, horse and mule stables, a caretaker's house and office, two warehouses, a hurricane shelter, a corn mill and slave quarters. At its height, the Hacienda produced and processed more than 10,000 pounds of coffee per year for shipment to Europe. The Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico purchased the land and buildings from the Vives family in 1984. For more information, call 787-722-5882 or 787-722-5834.
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