Coffee Cupping in Chaucha

Here’s a mixed metaphor for you – I’ve learned to stop and smell the coffee.

Normally I would smell the roses, but last week I had an opportunity to experience a “coffee cupping” at my new favorite daytrip destination – Hacienda Santa Marta in San Gabriel de Chaucha.

Coffee cupping, or cup tasting, is how coffee is tasted by producers and buyers around the world to check the quality of a batch of coffee. It allows tasters to compare and contrast coffees against each other, giving a better understanding of each coffee.

In the cupping process, coffees are scored for characteristics ranging from fragrance and flavor to aftertaste, acidity and mouthfeel.

Mouthfeel? Is that even a word? As we worked our way through various samples, we considered whether the coffee tasted buttery, creamy, smooth, rich, velvety, watery, oily, dry, chalky, rough, astringent, or metallic. THAT is mouthfeel.

Martha and Tony Camp led a group of Cuencano visitors through Coffee 101. The owners of Hacienda Santa Marta grow coffee on their 200-acre plantation, as well as sugarcane, orchids and enough fruits and vegetables to make trendy farm-to-table enthusiasts drool.

The couple, formerly from West Virginia, bought the hacienda nearly a decade ago. They have restored it to its more than 150-year-old splendor and recently began offering tours to educate visitors to the rich heritage of its indigenous Ecuadorians.

On this tour, we compared three varieties of unnamed coffees. We learned the proper way to slurp and spit, then ranked each with a mind-boggling lists of adjectives.

I’ve never thought of coffee as floral. But there it was. We heard a lot of votes for chocolate. Some went for fruity. And hidy. What the heck is hidy?

The best coffee is not necessarily those with the darkest grounds. And strong or bold are simplistic terms only drinkers use. Specialty coffees have so many variables affecting their taste it is “mind boggling,” Martha explains. The origin of the coffee, processing at origin, storage, and roasting techniques change the flavor.

And brewing – don’t even get her started. Coffee changes with water temperatures, the length of time the water is in contact with the coffee, the amount of coffee used and, of course, the type of device used to brew the coffee.

After smelling, tasting, sipping, and spitting, we voted. The majority found number two to be the winner – Hacienda Santa Maria’s own blend! Chaucha is quickly gaining a reputation among specialty coffee buyers as having some of the best high altitude Arabica in the world.

Unfortunately, Ecuador cannot compete in the lucrative coffee market. Martha told us thatcoffee crops are both labor intensive and a global commodity. Labor laws and high minimum wage standards in Ecuador mean that it cannot compete with the rest of the world, especially the growing number of producers for specialty coffee in Southeast Asia and some African nations where labor is inexpensive.

After the cupping, we tour the crops, where we learned how to determine the maturity of beans and how they are picked from the trees. In the greenhouse we saw drying racks for coffee beans and rows of neatly potted coffee plant seedlings waiting to be transplanted in outside fields. We learned about grinding and roasting in special clay pots over an open fire.

Our tour ended with another delicious meal prepared by Martha, showcasing a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits from the hacienda’s gardens. And, of course, delicious coffee.

It’s a three-hour, rugged drive each way between the Hacienda and Cuenca, but spectacular scenery keeps you spellbound along the way. The property has boundless trails leading down to the Rio Malacatos, where we tried our hand at gold panning, and stretching west to a series of accessible waterfalls.

The Camps’ next tours focus on the “campesino life,” offering glimpse into 100-year-old traditional life on the farm. Visitors will meet local artists and residents, taste foods prepared on a fogon, examine the components of traditional dress, learn Quichwa words, and hear local legends. Transportation is included.

By the way. Hidy? I had to search through a number of dictionaries online but finally got the gist. The adjective. Hidy is rarely used and means of or pertaining to hides. In coffee, it means having a characteristic leathery taste.

Contact the Camps at haciendasantamarta@gmail.com, or, for more information, see the website at haciendasantamarta.com

Weaving Memories

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I remember sunlight streaming through the windows.

Bright beams of light punctuated the rippling threads under my mother’s hands as she shoved a wooden shuttle through her loom. Her feet frantically pumped pedals below, trying to keep up. Her face always was a study in concentration, her bright blue eyes twinkling as she blissfully focused on the design growing out of her imagination.

She wasn’t a professional weaver. My mother was a hobbyist who fell in love with table machines and handmade looms of twisted driftwood or circular quilting frames. She graduated quickly to bigger projects and invested in a complicated floor loom. The joy that consumed her when she discovered weaving is something I will never forget. It was handmade art. It was escapism. It was creativity. It was imagination gone wild, as she wove in bones, shells, wooden fragments and even a horseshoe.

This creative period didn’t last long. But it lasted long enough to gift each of her older children with a Christmas treasure and to create a few pieces for her walls. Then the huge floor loom stood empty, gathering dust for many years until it finally was sold.

For a moment, I again saw my mom’s twinkling eyes as I entered La Casa de la Makana about 30 minutes from Cuenca, Ecuador. Ana Maria Ulloa greeted us with a warm smile and gleaming brown eyes. She drew us inside her home and workshop, housed in a large adobe building that is a highlight on most artisan tours from Cuenca to Chordeleg and Gualaceo.

DSC_0643DSC_0683Ana Maria shares the home with her husband, José Jiménez, and various family members. All  contribute to the family’s fame as the Royal Ikat weavers, rivaling  any of those in Asia.

It is hard to know where to look first. The two-story rustic building is a museum – giving voice to hundreds of iron artifacts, wooden objects, pictures and memorabilia hanging on the walls. There is evidence of weaving – looms, bound threads, vats of dye – in every corner.

Before starting the tour, I am drawn toward the ratcheting sound of what I know to be a floor loom. I peek around a dusty corner to see a young man slinging a shuttle back and forth. In my mind’s eye, I imagine my mother sitting there, her excitement palpable as the beautifully designed material cascades into her lap.

DSC_0652I am called back to the present, where the ever-charming Ana Maria shows us the process of weaving the sheep’s wool into threads. A young woman nearby has been transported elsewhere,  rhythmically winding threads around a loom, oblivious to any visitors.  Ana  guides us across the dirt floor to the dye station, where large clay pots hide a surprising variety of color. The family uses natural ingredients, she says, ranging from insects and worms to walnuts, a wide variety of plants and even rocks to create their  radiant palette.

With weathered, practiced hands, Ana Maria expertly crushes cochineals between her fingers. The dried insects are the source of her deepest red dye. With the addition of lime juice, the dye turns brown.  She reaches behind a pot to pinch a bit of baking soda and sprinkles it into the brown dye. The liquid abruptly changes into a  vivid purple. Her eyes twinkle at our amazement. The corners of her mouth turn up slightly in the satisfaction of having performed magic.

She waves her hand toward a nearby wooden staircase, inviting us to the witness the next stage of the weaving process.

Upstairs,  José  takes over. He uses a smaller version of the floor loom, called a back loom. Nimbly dropping onto a worn cushion, he  straps on a belt attached to the threads of the loom. He leans back, adjusts the belt around his lower back, and wiggles back and forth until he finds the right position. He begins. Throwing the large shuttle in and out of the design, he simultaneously pulls individual threads up and slams them tightly down to create a seamless Ikat pattern.

DSC_0659Ikat refers to an Indonesian style of woven material that is tie-dyed before weaving. The technique was brought to Europe by Dutch traders in Southeast Asia and to South America by Spanish explorers. Ikat patterns can be precise or, more commonly, hazy or blurred looking, depending on how the weaver uses the threads in the loom.

Jose’s family has practiced this traditional weaving for generations, he says, and he himself learned from his grandmother. One seemingly ancient piece holds a place of honor on the wall. It is over 150 years old and was woven by his great-grandmother. It features the seal of Ecuador and intricate hummingbirds. Sadly, there are few families who still weave as his does, he tells us, entirely by hand.

We watch in silent admiration as he works. After a time, he points to Ana Maria, who has taken up a position at a table where she is knotting the fringe. The elderly woman’s nimble hands work so quickly we cannot see the threads slip into knots until she has moved on. She grins. She is comfortable with her skills.

We finish our visit in the small retail shop. Brilliantly hued shawls and ponchos hang on both sides of the room. Vivid scarves and multi-colored purses are neatly stacked on wooden tables. Ana Maria hurries to dress each of us in one of her creations, smiling with satisfaction. She knows at least one of us cannot resist taking home some of her beautiful work.

We don’t disappoint her. We make our selections and head for the door with our treasures. Again, Ecuador has charmed me with the talents, skills and uniqueness of her people.

As we leave La Casa de la Makana, I turn back to see Ana Maria, already at work on her loom.

Her eyes are twinkling.

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Worth its Weight

42399199_10217288540435649_4388915926028779520_nSilver has always been my metal of choice. Simple. Elegant. Affordable.

Filigree silver jewelry, in my mind, was an Art Deco style that was popular in the early 1900s. I never gave the light, airy, lacy look much thought. It seemed dated. Old.

In Ecuador, filigree jewelry, both silver and gold, IS old. And my mind has been forever changed.

Known as filigrana in Spanish, filigree is a metal work formed of gold or silver threads, united and soldered with delicate perfection. Interestingly, filigrana also refers to a transparent mark or mark made on paper, like a watermark.

In Chordeleg, a mountain village just 30 miles from my home in Cuenca, craftspeople have certainly made their mark, although a more permanent one, with filigree jewelry.

On a recent trip with Polylepsis Tours, my friends and I spent time visiting the silver shops of Chordeleg. There we met Flavio Jara, whose family has crafted precious metals into intricate wearable designs for several generations. He began learning the trade at age 12, 50 years ago.

With a flourish of his hand, Flavio invited us into his workshop. It is a neatly organized, quiet, but busy place behind his shop, El Puerta Del Sol. He is ready for his guests, having fashioned a sort of mini tour by way of a sectioned wooden box. Each box displays silver in its various forms, from raw cylinders to finely crafted finished pieces.

He stands, motioning us to a rustic steel machine where all filigree is birthed, he says. When his father began creating jewelry 80 years ago, Flavio explains, he used a small iron plate in which various holes had been drilled. The jeweler pulled the soft silver – or gold – wire through the holes at random, guessing at the diminishing sizes until the strand was as fine as he could get it. Now Flavio uses a steel draw plate with carefully calibrated holes, each marked in tiny measurements. The difference – and speed – in which a piece can be created is… well it can’t be compared, he says, throwing his hands in the air and laughing.

While the calibrated holes make for more precise measurements, the silver – or gold – still is perfected the old fashioned way. Flavio gives us an opportunity to pull threads through the plates, with a pair of pliers. It is harder than it looks!

In his demonstration box, Flavio shows us the frame he will use for the threads of silver he has just created. Thicker pieces of silver or gold are bent until the desired shape is achieved. The jeweler then curls, twists or tightly winds silver into shapes that are gently placed inside the framework and flash soldered into place.

Some pieces require a zig zag. Flavio proudly cradles the palm-size machine invented by his father 30 years ago. Until then, the zig zag pattern required painstaking measurements and careful handmade bends in the wire. Now, he runs the wire through his father’s invention and “Mira!” he says, gleefully pointing out the bent thread emerging from the tiny machine. The zig zag is created in moments.

I watch his large fingers expertly twist a tiny circle and drop it into its frame. I am amazed he does not fumble. Deftly moving tiny pieces of silver from one piece to the next, he proudly demonstrates what will be a finished piece. He points to a flower – which will become a brooch. He beams, delighted at our astonishment when he explains it will be made of 220 pieces of handcrafted silver filigree.

DSC_0567The demonstration over, Flavio answers a few questions, then invites us into his sparkling store. Half museum, half retail operation, the artwork and jewelry are mesmerizing. There is an intricately built evening bag graced with a tiny hummingbird. In the window is a collection of vehicles – a plane, a motorcycle, and an ancient buggy. Now armed with the knowledge of creating filigree, we can’t take our eyes off of the complex works.

We linger over the showcase of candonga earrings – the traditional chandelier-type earrings popular in this culture. Even the light poles in this charming town boast oversize candongas! We make our selections from the hundreds of earrings and rings, all weighed for the price, and none costing us more than $18.

We emerge into the sunlight with treasure more precious for the experience of watching gifted hands create, than for its physical beauty. We will never look at filigree the same.