Guest lecturer Sandy Cares has been sharing her insightful and entertaining lectures aboard Oceania Cruises voyages throughout the Caribbean and Central America since January 2014. Below, she shares her unique experience at a century-old hacienda in Costa Rica.
I don’t know about you, but in my life, sugar constitutes a major food group. I can’t get enough of it, so when the opportunity arose to join a Regatta excursion to see how sugar is processed in Costa Rica, the proverbial wild horses couldn’t keep me away.
The action started at Hacienda Tayutic after a pleasant narrated ride through Costa Rica’s lush countryside. Strolling around the idyllic grounds we got lost –and found – in an amazing old maze, met up with some mystical ancient spheres and found a little chapel with a breathtaking view.
But the pièce de résistance was the little open-air theater where a pair of oxen sharing a decorative wooden yoke awaited our arrival before strutting their stuff around the old-style animal mill the hacienda uses to crush the sugarcane.
Unknown to many, sugarcane is actually a type of grass, and is not indigenous to the Caribbean. Sugarcane came as a guest aboard Columbus’s ship, reportedly from his mother-in-law’s garden in the Canary Islands. Of course that may be fuzzy history, part-truth and part-legend – but indigenous to India, sugar started its Caribbean presence in 1492.
Directly on the heels of Columbus, Sephardic Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition left Spain and Portugal to introduce the New World’s first large-scale sugar plantations in Brazil. In no time, this crop that found a welcome environment with the rich volcanic soil and frequent rains – and an insatiable demand in Europe – rolled through the Caribbean islands fueling the economy of the British Empire for centuries.
In Costa Rica, the method for sugar processing today is not far removed from that used originally by the Sephardic Jews. Initially, sugar has to be harvested with a machete. It is tough and labor intensive, which gives pause to the unavoidable fact that without the free labor provided by African slaves, about four million in the Caribbean alone by the mid-19th Century, the Caribbean sugar enterprise would have failed.
As our small group watched the sugarcane process, a couple of volunteers fed stalks of sugarcane into crushers as the oxen lumbered around and around the mill. It was amazing how much juice gushed out of the cane stalks passing through the crushers.
Our hosts boiled the syrup in a round-bottom “copper” kettle over an open fire. “Coppers” were used universally in this process and I have seen old coppers strewn across the Caribbean from Antigua to Tortola, from neglected fields to museum exhibits…everywhere!
Now the clear cane juice was turning dark brown and the distinctive smell of molasses permeated the air. Our host checked the concoction intermittently with his paddle to determine its readiness. From a “soft ball” stage, it quickly graduated to the “hard ball” stage, when it’s ready for crystallization.
Sugar must be crystallized very quickly or it spoils; therefore, during the colonial era no one could leave the plantation during harvest season. For this reason, plantations were planned as self-contained communities including a greathouse, mill, boiling house, livestock barns, rum distillery, even a chapel, infirmary and jail.
The boiler master had only a brief opportunity for crystallization or risked losing the entire batch. Our hosts proved this point by quickly pouring the dark and viscous liquid from the copper into a wooden vat.
While entertaining us with the hacienda’s history, they added some mineral lime while constantly paddling the sugar. Before our very eyes, the paddling transformed the thick mass into rich, beautiful crystal sugar, deep brown with the consistency of damp sand.
To some of the still-liquid sugar mass they added powdered milk and stirred in chopped macadamia nuts until it thickened into irresistible pralines. Meanwhile, they had poured liquid sugar into wooden molds and “thumped out” some beautiful sugar “loaves” they cleverly wrapped in banana leaves for an artful photo op.
A couple of weeks later, I am writing this at home in my kitchen in Grand Rapids, Michigan at about 4:00 am. I am sipping my first morning cup of coffee delectably sweetened with pure brown sugar from that day in Costa Rica at Hacienda Tayutic. Besides the sweet memory, what souvenir could be sweeter than…sugar?
- “Confessions from a Sugar Plantation Greathouse”
- “Breadfruit and Cou-Cou Sticks: New World Meets Old World For Dinner”
- “Tropical Torahs: History of the Caribbean Jews”