A fog settles on the town as the workers make their way to the mill. They quietly walk or bump along in a chiva on roads soon to be shared with horses and motorcycles. It is early, long before children’s sleepy eyes open to begin the morning rituals of getting ready for school.
It is panela making day. The day before, they were in the fields cutting sugar cane with razor sharp machetes. Stalks resembling miniature bamboo trees are now stacked to the roof in the mill waiting for the men to gather.
Located in a World Heritage Site in the western Andes in El Cairo, Valle del Cauca, the Trapiche La Esperanza is a traditional sugar cane mill owned and operated for the past 41 years by the Franco Aristizabal family. Relying on the skills of local people to create the perfect panela product, Franco watches over the process intently as the day begins.
By the time I arrive after breakfast, kilometers of thick-looking gray liquid has been squeezed from thousands of cane stalks. Powered by propane, a machine the size of a car engine is constantly fed sugar cane by a man barely visible drowning in efficiently piled sugar cane. Stalks flow through intimidating iron jaws squeezing out every drop of juice. Pushed out on the other side, the stalks are gathered and dropped into large woven baskets.
When the basket is full, the collector wraps the leather strap around his shoulders and carries the basket on his back to the other side of the building adding to a mountain of stalks waiting to be used as fuel for the ovens. I silently wish he was wearing a Fitbit to count how many steps he will take today.
Called by many different names around the world, panela is basically sugar cane juice that has been boiled until it becomes a thick caramel texture then spread into molds to dry into blocks of pure brown sugar. The cultivation of sugar cane came to Latin America with the conquistadores, along with the mills.
Colombia is the world’s second largest producer of panela, but the largest consumer per capita. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations declares panela a food product containing calcium, iron, and vitamins – unlike sugar which is basically sucrose. According to the Panela Monitor, its antioxidant level is comparable to walnuts, almonds, and blueberries. In rural areas, panela is often added to milk for babies to combat illnesses. Most of the panela in Colombia is used as brown sugar for cooking, a sweetener for coffee or served as a hot tea with lemon.
The noise from the cane eating machine drowns out conversations as workers wait for the juice to slowly make its way through pipes to the cooking pots. I have eaten panela since arriving in Colombia and wonder how that icky gray liquid will turn into the golden bars of delicious brown sugar sitting in my kitchen. I look around the mill apprehensively at middle-aged men wearing futbol T-shirts and baseball caps. I’m skeptical.
I follow the juice as it slowly drips into the first of five copper pots creating an as-the-crow-flies path to the molding table. Almost full, steam begins to rise as the supervisor with a straw fedora shoves squashed cane stalks into a large stone oven. As the fire builds, heat travels along pipes underneath the runway of pots. A few men grab two-meter long bamboo ladles attached to large steel bowls and line up along the shiny copper pots.
As the liquid starts to boil, impurities rising to the top are scooped up with a Solla sack apron and dropped into buckets to be fed to farm animals later. The artisan never leaves the pot and stirs often. When the right chocolate brown color appears he scoops the juice into the second pot and begins to stir.
As his pot begins to boil rapidly, the panelero fills his bowl of now bronze liquid high over his head and slowly lets it cascade back into the pot. I suddenly realize I’m watching a candy making process. He is testing the liquid for the right consistency by its appearance, not by using a fancy candy thermometer. I know from my Christmas candy making days, if you boil the liquid too much the candy will become teeth-breaking hard, not enough it will turn into mush. The secret to perfect candy is to know when the liquid is ready to be removed from practice – the best become candy chefs and move to Paris.
Clad in a red football T-shirt another person gets into the action as panela syrup is moved scoop by scoop into the remaining pots. His pots are much smaller and hotter, the mixture now resembling hot volcanic lava. The panela chefs rarely stop stirring, pouring, scooping and testing for hours, working in harmony as the syrup waterfalls are now as thick as caramel. I suspect their arms are aching by now.
Young people begin to pile into the mill. School is out for the day and obviously the panela day alert sounded. As the thick golden syrup is moved into the last pot, the children get excited.
Suddenly, the patriotic footballer runs to the other side uncovering a wooden box. He picks up two wooden paddles and waits for his panela partner to scoop the caramel mixture towards him. He begins to stir the mixture back and forth to cool it with little eyes watching every move.
The boy tenderly uses a wooden bowl he has been holding and fills it up carefully. He turns to a barrel of water and dips his prize to cool it. When he raises the bowl, every kid’s finger takes a swipe. One of them runs towards me with a huge smile offering a handful of gooey caramel. After one bite, I fully understand their excitement.
With teeth stuck together I rush over to watch a youngster scoop the panela from the wooden box into molds with no bottoms. As he works down the table, he revisits the first panela bars and expertly shakes them from the mold. A curly haired teen retrieves the still warm bars and stacks them carefully in a storage room to dry into golden bars of delicious brown sugar just like the ones sitting in my kitchen.
Food is a continuous connection to where you come from on the journey to who you are today. From seed to table, the people intertwined in the process are as important to your journey as the food itself.