My posting about my Costa Rica Coffee Experience continues this week as we visit farms and learn the process: from a coffee “cherry” to a roasted bean to a “Cup of Joe.”
By JASPER J. MIRABILE JR.
After settling in for our first night in San Jose, Costa Rica, we awoke the following morning to The Roasterie’s Danny O’Neill and his Bean Hunter John Ferguson grinding fresh roasted coffee beans and brewing some of the finest coffee this chef has ever experienced.
Our day’s adventure began visiting schools that O’Neill helps support in Costa Rica. The schools are for the farmers’ and pickers’ children who attend while their parents are at work.
Each year O’Neill visits the schools and “gives back” to the community, his way of directly trading with the farmers and forming life-long relationships.
From the schools we walked through the villages of the west valley and to the coffee farms. We walked up the mountains and through the coffee bean growing area with Grace Mena from Lomas al Rio Coffee Mill, then off to La Perla, Naranjo, and last but not least to Genesis Coffee State’s plantation.
We watched “wet processing,” from the beginning stage where the red cherry bean is put through a mill, washed and cleaned. The beans are then laid on African beds — a wooden stretcher with a suspending netting — where they dry by the Costa Rican sun, turning into green colored beans. The coffee beans are then bagged and shipped around the world where they will be roasted.
At each stop we talked with the farmer about the 2014 season, their way of processing and we met each family, who had open arms for each and everyone of us as we arrived. Believe me, it was like being with family the whole day.
A highlight of the day for this chef was visiting the local carnival in the middle of San Jose and enjoying lunch with everyone. Of course our lunch consisted of beans and rice along with quesadillas and fresh made burritos.
On the second day of our Costa Rican Coffee Bean Tour, we had fun competing in a coffee bean picking contest at El Pacayal, just an hour drive from our hotel. We discovered that picking coffee was not a very easy job and it must be done properly, especially when you have to select the ripe cherries, as opposed to the unripened cherries, on the same tree.
It takes about 1-1/2 hours to fill the baskets and pickers only get $2 per basket. Believe me, that’s a lot of work for such little pay and that type of work, has to be a labor of love for the locals.
During the next part of our expedition, we visited local micro-mills which have become very popular the past few years. This is also where we had an educational visit, learning the details about the honey process, where less water is used during the processing, making this process not only better for the environment, but gives a more complex flavor to the cup profile. These micro meals are producing a good deal of honey and natural coffees, placing them in several cups of excellent competition the past few years. No wonder.
On our third day, we went to Grace Mena’s Deli Cafe Cupping Lab where O’Neill and Ferguson spent several hours cupping 44 samples — that’s 132 cups of Joe in one morning. Ferguson said, one of the most interesting and rewarding results after blind cupping all the samples was that the Don Quixote sample from the Lomas al Rio cup was one of the highest given scores.
This was really surprising and very interesting to watch these two “cup” the coffee. I was not only fortunate enough to watch these two “cup coffee,” I even had a chance to cup some myself and
listen to O’Neill explain to me the different flavors I was tasting such as a big fat peach, vanilla, chocolate, different berries and more. Talk about interesting.
After the cupping we traveled to more micro-mills and cooperatives where local farmers brought the coffee to be processed and paid a certain amount for each truck, measured with old fashioned instruments, no scales at all, and totals kept track on a simple abacus.
On the way back to our hotel, O’Neill asked the driver of our bus to stop when he saw a Granisado truck. This snow-cone-like treat consists of crushed or shaved ice, with semi-sweet milk, fruit syrup and condensed milk drizzled on top. I jumped off the bus and immediately started taking pictures of the man and his old-fashioned ice shaver. The drink was as delicious as it looked and I plan on making it this summer, when it gets hot outside.
On the final day we visited farms, including La Bella Vista Beneficio Tres Rios Estate, Tarrazu, where we rode a truck up the mountain and through the plantation and met third generation farmer, Eric Andre.
We also visited three more micro-mills and all commented on the quality and cleanliness of each farm and all of the machinery and drying tables. We were at the height of the harvest season, and at each farm and processing mill, there would be lines of farmers and trucks waiting for their beans to be sold and processed.
One highlight of the day was watching an old fashion cart pull up, drawn by two oxen. It made you feel really good knowing that these people are respecting their land and upholding traditions.
That evening we spent the night far up in the mountains in the rain forest. It was almost like camping out in cabins where we all noted the micro-climate and very cold nights as opposed to our almost 85-degree sunny days on the coffee plantations.
Our final day consisted only of one stop and a micro-mill but it was a little different than the others because here we saw them participating in traditional processing techniques for sugarcane. This was really something to watch them not only harvest the sugarcane with a machete, but also enjoy the fresh syrup right from the cup. Another first for this chef.
The afternoon was spent at The Marcato Centrale, where we walked the indoor market and observed the fresh meat, seafood, assorted produce and of course, the many restaurants inside. We stopped at a “Soda,” as the restaurants are called, and enjoyed one of our best lunches of the trip.
The evening was spent at the home of Grace Mena, where we toured her plantation. It was like a home set on many acres and we were treated like family.
We were invited to have dinner and sit at her table. I was invited to go into the kitchen and watch Mena prepare her famous Paella. I asked permission to take notes and pictures and got the biggest kick out of watching Mena prepare her specialty dish with loads and loads of fresh seafood and some of the finest saffron I have ever seen.
Our group, along with the Roasterie’s team and O’Neill’s family, all sat at one long table with Mena and her family as enjoyed the conversation and the finest dinner of our trip. At the end of the meal, Mena shared some of her homemade ice cream with fig syrup that she prepared just for us.
We all toasted her and promised to return. At this dinner we decided to bring one of the farmers from Costa Rica back to Kansas City in the coming months and celebrate a dinner at the Roasterie event space and have Mena come along as a special guest. Details forthcoming. Stay tuned.
The following morning we awoke to fresh brewed coffee by the Roasterie team and said our goodbyes to our gracious innkeeper Cecilia.
I enjoyed my last fried plantains “Platanos Fritos” and secretly talked Cecilia out of the recipe. She knew I absolutely loved these in the morning and had her cook prepare them every day for me. Grazie Cecilia, I owe you.
We then went to visit O’Neill’s host mom at her home. It was here where he met ‘Mommy’ when he was just 17 years old and he refers to her and all of her family as his Costa Rican family. She prepared a breakfast of fresh tamales that were absolutely delicious and another highlight of our trip, along with a sweet cream rice for dessert.
You should have seen all the smiles on everyone’s faces as we sat there in mommy’s home and enjoyed her company and O’Neill telling stories of his first visit to Costa Rica.
My radio co-host, Kimberly Winter Stern, and I also were honored to have everyone sit and listen to our live radio broadcast of our radio show, Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen, right there in Mommy’s family room, thousands of miles from Kansas City. What a treat.
We headed to the airport for our flight back to Kansas City and said our final goodbyes to everyone. We learned so much this trip and experienced a lifetime of memories. I left Costa Rica with a respect not only for my morning “Cup of Joe,” but also for the farmers and the Costa Rican’s who work so hard to provide the world with their homegrown product.
I am so very grateful to Danny O’Neil, Grace Mena, along with Team Roasterie, for giving me the chance to experience this beautiful country and take a trip of a lifetime.
Anyone can visit Costa Rica, but getting to meet the farmers, walking the coffee plantations, traveling to the volcano and the rain forest in the mountains, harvesting coffee cherries, eating the traditional foods in the people’s homes … this is something that you never get to experience as a tourist.
I am so very grateful for this chance. Grazie O’Neill for the invitation. I will be your wing man anytime for your next coffee expedition.
Like I said before, it is a labor of love and I will remember this trip every time I sip a “Cup of Joe.” I truly have a passion for coffee and I owe it all to The Roasterie Coffee Co.
As the Costa Ricans say, “Pura Vida” (poor-ah vee-dah) which means “pure life,” but more than anything, it’s a way of life. This phrase symbolizes the Costa Rican idea of letting things go and simply enjoying life. They are very simple people and they do so enjoy their lives. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.
Cecilia’s Platanos Fritos
1/2 cup butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Peel the plantains and cut them in half. Slice the halves lengthwise into thin pieces. Melt butter in sauté pan on medium heat and add plantains. Sauté each side until golden brown. Add brown sugar and stir. Remove from pan and drain excess butter from Plantain’s. Serve.
Jaspers Notes: Make sure you purchase plantains in advance of cooking. I like the plantains to get as dark as possible on the outside, almost black. This is when they are really ripe and perfect for cooking. I like to also mash the plantains in using pancake mix or bake with them.
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s commands the helm of his family’s 59-year-old restaurant, consistently rated one of Kansas City’s best Italian restaurants. In addition to running the restaurant with his brother, Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He hosts many famous chefs on his weekly radio show Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM and sells a line of dressings and sauces.