San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A Trapiche’s Story: Carrying on the Family, Costa Rican Tradition

AT 2 a.m., 15-year-old Eduardo Sandíquietly slips out of his house to begin a longday of work at the trapiche, the traditionalsugar mill used to press the juice from freshlycut cane.Sandí has helped his grandfather attrapiches since he was five. At first, he heldthe candles needed for light; then, as he grewolder, he stoked the fires with wood andtended the oxen that powered the mill.Over the years, he learned all the steps inthe complex process of making the blocks ofbrown sugar called tapas.His grandfather even told him the secretof how to know when the thick, bubblingcane juice is ready to be cooled and pressedinto molds. But that day, he had a specialreason for getting an early start – when hisfather arrived at daybreak, he saw that hisson had produced a batch of tapas completelyon his own for the first time.THAT was 21 years ago.Since then, as roads were built andtrucks replaced oxcarts, it became easier forfarmers to transport cane to a central locationfor processing. Trapiches, and theknow-how Sandí learned from his grandfather,began to vanish.Now Sandí is preserving a bit of CostaRican history by doing traditional trapicheswith his family, neighbors and visitors.At the hilltop farm 26 kilometers(16 miles) south of Santiago dePuriscal, southeast of San José,Sandí has built a fire pit lined withlarge rocks and topped with packedearth.Atop the pit sits a wide, ironcauldron with the modern addition ofstainless steel sides to prevent thehot cane juice from splattering. Atone end is a trench dug one meterdeep (about 3 1/4 feet) for the personwho feeds wood to the fire.At the other end, a blackened earthchimney allows smoke toescape.TRADITIONAL sugar millsused to be powered by two oxen.Electric motors replaced the oxenabout 15 years ago when electricitycame to this area. Sandí’s trapichehas both types of power sources.Cane juice flows from the millinto buckets and the crushed stalks of caneare stacked off to the side to be fed to livestock.Sandí’s brother takes a handful of thebark of the Guácimo tree and swirls andsqueezes it in a bucket of juice. This barksoaks up any impurities before the juice ispoured into the cauldron for cooking.Initially the fire is fueled with coffeewood, followed by other types of firewood.At the point when the hottest fire is needed,Sandí burns bamboo. Patches of bamboostill grow throughout this part of the country,planted decades ago by farmers who neededa supply of it near their trapiches.As the juice cooks, condensed steam fillsthe nostrils with the smells of new-mownhay and a hint of molasses. The colorchanges from a pale yellowish-green toamber. A neighbor stirs the cauldron with along ladle then scoops ladles of juice andpours them through the air to cool.ABOUT halfway through the three-hourcooking process, the espuma is ready. Thefoam that forms at the top of the boilingjuice makes a warm, sweet “soup,” which iseaten from bowls with pieces of crushedcane used as spoons.As the juice bubbles and cooks, itbecomes thicker and the color darkens.Some is dropped into a bowl of cool waterwhere it becomes a delicious, gooey masscalled, melcocha. People pull off bite-sizepieces as the bowl is passed around.When the thick juice is ready, it ispoured into a large, wooden trough where itis mixed with a wooden paddle as it cools.Sandí then presses the soft, brown sugar intomolds cut into a thick plank. After furthercooling, he inverts the plank over a bed ofcrushed cane stalks and pounds the backwith a mallet to release the tapas. Later,stacks of four tapas are wrapped and tied incane leaves to form tamugas.SANDÍ’S wife Dinia mixes the soft,brown sugar with powdered milk andcrushed peanuts to form a type of candy.Cocoa, mint or cheese – yes, cheese – maybe used to make other flavors. Some arebroken into bite-size pieces for tasting, andsome cool as a loaf in a shallow basket made of banana stalk

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