Sweet and natural in Chiriqui
I have discovered the perfect drinks for Panama. Sweet, but not cloying, light but with intense flavor, cool, refreshing, and with as mu...
I have discovered the perfect drinks for Panama. Sweet, but not cloying, light but with intense flavor, cool, refreshing, and with as much or little alcohol as you want.
Dos Rios Delight
Take one stick of sugar cane. Press it through a trapiche (sugar mill). Collect the strange colored liquid that runs off. Add lots of ice, a squeeze of freshly cut lemon and as much rum as you like. There is nothing better on a hot or humid afternoon.
I first tried this on the day I visited a wooden trapiche in Dos Rios, Chiriqui. That was a surprise in itself. The sugar is still made as it was hundreds of years ago, when sugar cane was first brought to the Americas by one of Colombus’ expeditions.
The cane is cut in the early morning and brought to the trapiche on a bullock-drawn cart. Then the bulls are harnessed to the mill and start their steady monotonous plod, round and around, turning the wooden mangles that squeeze out the juice.
The crushed canes are twisted together and pushed through the mangles two or three times to squeeze out every last drop of the precious liquid.
The juice runs into containers which are periodically tipped into an enormous stainless steel pan set over a giant fogón (wood-burning stove).
When the pan is full, the stove is lit and then begins the hot sticky process of steaming off the excess moisture and skimming off the froth. What is left behind is a dense, sweet, caramel miel (syrup) – delicious on pancakes with a squeeze of lemon, or to bake with instead of sugar, or to sweeten juice or coffee.
At just the right moment, the miel is poured into a flat wooden bowl carved out of a single log and is beaten with oar-like wooden paddles until it becomes pale and starts to crystallize.
Then it is poured into wooden moulds, on top of a thin strip of banana leaf to help lever the set sugar out, and left to cool.
And for all this hot, sticky work, which takes a whole day and is relentless once it starts, the natural sugar cane sells for just 50 cents for two round panelas. There is probably not a better bargain in the whole of Chiriqui.
Except perhaps for palm wine. Take one prickly palm tree (the sort with too many spines on the trunk). Cut it down at the base. In the bottom most-part of the fallen trunk cut out a rectangular shaped hole through the bark down to the hollow inner chamber where the sap flows. Put the top back and leave the tree for a about three days. Then go back, pluck a large grass straw, and drink the white liquid that has collected in the hole.
It is lightly fizzy, like home made ginger beer, has the same kind of refreshing dry taste, but also has a wild alcoholic kick that can leave you singing if you drink too much. The longer you leave it, the more wine will accumulate, and the more fizzy it becomes (and alcoholic).
The frothy white foam that collects on top can be eaten like a super-light mousse.
Best of all, you can keep extending the hole all the way along the trunk, so day after day you’ll have a fresh supply.
Bottle the palm wine, chill it in the fridge and leave it to mature for a while, and you get palm champagne.
And if you leave it even longer (if you can) and let off the accumulated gas every now and again, you’ll get palm brandy, equally delicious but even more potent, so I am told.
Of course, it may be simpler to ask a Chiricano to prepare it for you. But this is definitely one campesino delight that should not go untasted.
SECRETS OF SARIL
Another of our favorites is saril - a beautiful dark pink-red drink, delicately floral, which can be used alone or as a mixer with rum or other spirits.
Saril is a hibiscus like plant that grows about 1.5 meters high and has dark red flowers.
You have to pick the flowers whilst they are still closed in a bud, but have already turned red.
Strip the petals away from the immature pod in the center, and boil them in water for 10 minutes or so until the liquid becomes dark pink. Then chill it in the fridge, with a chunk of raspadura (cane sugar).
You can sometimes buy saril in Super Baru. But it is easy to grow, pretty to look at if you decide to let it flower after all.
And you can even dry the petals and use them to make saril later in the year.