Recently, my tico neighbors lent me some Outkast-style hospitality and invited me to participate in a rural family tradition: processing sugar cane, or moliendo caña.
The day I attended, the activity, now more social than subsistent, drew about twenty family members and friends to (a) help, (b) watch, or (c) poke the oxen’s bums with sticks.
Not for the faint of heart, the process can begin as soon as the sun peeks over the horizon. Everything begins with the hauling of cane from the fields to the trapiche (cane mill). From there, driven by brute ox power, the cane is squeezed into juice and the long stalks tossed aside.
The juice is poured into a jacuzzi-sized vat, which is heated carefully by fire underneath (preferably monitored by a dedicated attendant or two).
As the water boils off, a thicker liquid is left behind. Some of this liquid gets diverted into large metal canisters and cooled in tubs of water. It will be warmed and used to make agua dulce (literally, “sweet water”).
As more and more water evaporates, a fluid miel (syrup) is left behind. As the liquid reaches this stage, it’s time to execute an exit strategy and remove the syrup from the heat.
This is the moment the spectators have been waiting for. As the exit trough drops into place, spectators flock from the sidelines. They extend bowls, slabs of wood, and pans, eagerly awaiting a dollop of the orange-gold syrup. As soon as they receive it, they retreat to their benches, tree stumps, and four-wheelers, dump in clouds of powdered milk, and whip furiously with their utensil of choice. Some will add peanuts or mint for a jazzy touch. These independent projects will yield cajetas – rich, flaky brown sweets.
Meanwhile, the trough is filled with steamy syrup from the vat and stirred with a wooden rod. As it starts to cool, the liquid becomes thicker and more viscous.
The liquid is scooped from the trough and scraped into molds, where it will harden into tapa de dulce, a solid cake of sugar. This is the final product.
Once upon a time, the tapas de dulce were packed onto horses and marched down to the coast in Puntarenas to be sold. Now, with the world at its mechanized height and sugar much more readily available, this isn’t a for-profit enterprise. Rather, it’s an opportunity to uphold an old tradition and compartir – to share – time with family and friends.