by Esme McAvoy
We’ve been in Andrés’ home town Manizales for the last few weeks, a small city in the heart of Colombia’s coffee-growing region. Yet, on the lower slopes of the surrounding Andean mountains, where the climate becomes warmer and more tropical, the coffee bushes give way to fields of bright green sugar cane which is used to make one of Colombia’s most traditional products: panela.
Panela was one of my first loves in Colombia. Pure, unrefined sugar that tastes like honey with a hint of blackstrap molasses, it comes in solid square blocks or round discs, each weighing in at half a kilo. The colour of Highland toffee or creamy caramel, it’s stacked high at farmers’ markets and in every single corner shop, no matter how remote.
Panela is found in every home in rural Colombia, where families will start their day with a big cup of ‘agua panela’ (panela water). To break it up into usable chunks, the whole block is held in the palm and whacked straight on with a river stone kept in the kitchen for the sole purpose of panela smashing. A chunk is added to a jug of warming water on the stove until it melts, creating delicious, honey-coloured sugar water that, like a cup of tea back home, cures everything. Drunk on its own or with fresh mint leaves, it is also used as a base for making a sweet coffee or hot chocolate.
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