If it wasn’t for the nearby Cocora Valley (next post) and an expat who opened a hostel here and promoted it beyond words, the small town of Salento – although beautiful – would not have made it onto the gringo trails any time soon. As it is, Salento typically crawls with tourists and many of about 7,000 local residents have prospered (relatively) in recent years by offering accommodations, food or artesanal souvenirs.
The town is located at about 1900 meters in the so-called ‘eje cafetero’ – the region where the vast majority of the delicious Colombian coffee is produced and where most locals refer to themselves as ‘Paisas’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paisa_Region). The region has been placed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage (as Coffee Cultural Landscape; see http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1121). This area has a temperate climate, very favourable to agriculture in general, and especially to the production of high quality coffee which can be harvested several times a year.
We visited an organic coffee farm established decades ago by Don Elias. His daughter Monica showed us around and explained the process of growing and processing coffee. At this farm, they grow four types of coffee and process it the traditional way, without the use of any fancy machinery. They also grow a number of other plants, all with strategic locations and purposes. Some are meant to provide shade for the coffee trees (avocado tree is supposed to be particularly great for that), others provide precious compost, yet others are medicinal plants used to cure various illnesses.
I had never even seen a coffee tree before and had no idea that the fruits which embed the precious grains are actually sweet. Each little berry contains two beans. Once berries are ripe (turning red in most cases or yellow in some), they are hand-picked off the trees. Next, the pulp is removed (what Monica referred to as ‘the first skin’) and the beans are left to dry. Then they remove the very thin ‘second skin’ through a seemingly pretty time consuming process. The beans are then roasted over low heat for one hour. They have to be constantly stirred so as not to burn. Once roasted, the beans are ground and ready to be turned into the amazing concoction drank the world over. Coffee drank by Colombians is typically very mild by European standards, but the one Monica prepared for us at Elias’s finca was a proper – and most delicious – Kaboom!