A machine steams, the coffee drips, a bottle tips, and whallah! Here you go, she says. The window slides open and closes while the barista efficiently moves within a two-foot radius to concoct the precious liquid. She conserves time and maximizes space to meet the needs of her lined-up clientele. Passing cash in exchange for the drink, my grateful hands now hold an elixir for morning joy. I can hardly get the straw to my lips fast enough. I toss a tip into the jar, place the drink in its special holder, accelerate, buckle-up, and begin slurping. The routine is well known to many who look forward to a dose of the sweet nectar from a drive-thru espresso stand.
In the Dominican Republic, there arent any espresso stands. In fact, many of the homes people are living in are not much bigger than the java huts which abbreviate our city streets. However, the Dominican people are just as committed to drinking and serving coffee. It is customary here in the morning and after lunch to drink a tiny cup of the strong, dark stuff with an impressive amount of sugar. Unlike some cultures that prefer a watered down version, Dominicans slam it back quickly like a stiff shot of rum. Sometimes, my neighbor Belkis surprises me by sending her daughter over with a steaming cup of sweet espresso laced with nutmeg. My smile is as large as Mabels, who shares in my delight as the aroma hits me.
Coffee from the DR is sold on a local and international level. Most of my neighbors buy the national brand in little packets every day, because of its affordability and freshness. With coffee trees growing on many parts of the island, I anticipate the opportunity to visit a farm where coffee is harvested and prepared for brewing, the old fashioned way.
Humored by my intrigue with the coffee creation process, my friend Yolanda invites me to her familys finca (farm) to witness the coffee making routine from start for finish. She first shows me the coffee berries growing on trees in various sizes and hues of red. They dangle delicately off the tender tree limbs like droplets of coffee waiting to fall into my cup. We walk on and she explains the purpose of the long cement slab placed in the scorching sun. It looks like a mini landing strip, but its used to dry the coffee berries in the sun. The fruit withers away, leaving the bare bean ready to roast.
The tour continues as we enter a tidy, dirt-floored shack where two black iron caldrons are ablaze with roasting seeds. The smell of burnt sugar and coffee is overwhelming, along with heat. Yolandas mother Lupita, a petite yet strong woman in her eighties, is busy removing a fresh batch from the fire. She pours the mass of crackling beans onto a worn, wooden plate. She smiles at my enthusiasm over seeing the toasted gems. To heighten their luster, she invites me to sprinkle handfuls of brown sugar onto their smoldering skin.
I dont think I can take one step closer to the open flames. The heat is making me woozy, yet my eyes are transfixed on the polished beans. Lupitas graceful hands are mesmerizing as they turn the beans over and over with a wooden spoon, working the sugar into a black glaze. Her turquoise dress is radiant against the drab wooden panels of the kitchen. Aware that my eyes are spinning, Yolanda asks me to help her set the wooden platters of beans outside to cool.
We stroll over to an airy shed where a giant mortar and pestle rests like a prehistoric fossile. It is made for pounding coffee and has been used by family members for several generations. Wham! Wham! Wham! Using all the strength I can muster, the beans start to break down into irregular sized chunks.
Working shoulder and forearm, about fifteen minutes is required for a grown man to grind four cups of beans. As sweat begins to bead on my upper lip, I continue to give it my best effort. Yolanda uses a screen to separate the pulverized grounds from those that need more attention. She insists I let her work the pestle, but I have almost reached my goal of half a cup. With my shirt damp, I watch victoriously as a small mound of black powder is whisked away to percolate. It seems like a lot work for a cup of coffee.
It was time to relax in the shade and enjoy some fresh orange juice squeezed from fruit off the trees overhead. The bitter rinds are fed to the cows. Lupita explains that to make chocolate, they use almost the same process. The chocolate seeds are harvested from the insides of yellow pods that hang off cacao trees. The seeds are dried in the sun, roasted, and then ground into unsweetened cocoa.
Yolandas family continues to share gifts with me. A cousin shows up with a couple of ponies for us to ride! I was thrilled to be able to see more of the countryside on horseback. I had no sooner climbed into the saddle when Lupita appears at the foot of the horse with a steaming cup of the freshest coffee possible. Her eyes gleam like two little roasted coffee beans.
Here it is, mija (my daughter), enjoy! she says proudly as she hands up a delicate white cup and saucer of dark coffee goodness. The formality of its presentation is suitable for royalty, yet all honor should be bestowed upon what is in the cup. I take a sip from the saddle. The deep flavor transports me to the core of the purest coffee flavor imaginable. It fills my mouth with a richness that echoes all the way down my throat and rises up through my nostrils. I feel high on a quality of life Mother Nature has intended for everyone who works hard and treats Her right.