Tapa Dulce, or Miel de Caña – Cane Honey. That’s what they call it in Costa Rica. It’s the purest way of eating cane sugar. A whole plant product, with an amazing taste, that truly can rival, honey.
Traditionally, Tapa Dulce is made in family or community scale operations. Whole sugar cane is passed through a mechanical squeezer, and the juice goes through a fine mesh to filter out loose fibers before entering the big cauldron boilers. Old bagasse (cane husk) that has been dried for several weeks is used as the fuel source burning beneath the boilers, to keep the fires going… Closed loops, nothing wasted.
The fires burn, carefully tended by two seasoned men who’ve probably been doing this since they were 10. One of them is social and soft-hearted, and seems to appreciate the genuine interest in this gringo, and he amicably takes up the reigns of giving me a tour. Meanwhile others stir the boilers until the cane juice has reduced into a thick, brown syrup – the sweet aroma fills and surrounds me. Women and kids are laughing and chatting outside, preparing lunch for the working party; it’s a routine family affair.
When the syrup is thick enough, a skilled pourer moves sleekly with his hand-held pot filling the individual molds, carved out of a long strip of heavy wood. Ten minutes later pure lumps of solidified cane juice (or cane honey) are popped out, cool down, and are then bagged for sale. This stuff is the purest of the pure, nothing removed. All of the goodness of nutrients and taste of the original sugar cane plant are retained. Bags of two or so lumps can be found at every other roadside fruit vender in Costa Rica and Panama, selling for some US$2 each. This is a place where relationship with the land and plants has never been questioned, and is still very much alive with an unmistakeable sense of pride and dignity, and almost marital commitment.
Back in T&T there was a day when we also took pride in our sugar cane industry. But when international prices fell, that was the end of an era for a people who no longer held a personal relationship with sugar, but rather saw it as a market commodity to be either exploited or dismissed. Refineries closed, and cane farmers felt the pinch.
It’s because we forgot.
In a world where big industry and corporation were quickly becoming so revered, farmers and craftsmen put down their machetes and forgot the wisdom of their grandfathers, and moved towards the beckoning call of lit-up oil derricks, and everything else shiny and big and complex that came with a new age of big money, excitement and success.
Can we turn back the pages of time and remember traditions that were lost? Can we look to our Trinidadian and Tobagonian soils to produce the food we eat, with pride and even joy? Food with as little plastic packaging as possible, and unnecessary words in the “ingredients” section – if packaging is necessary? At a time when we are quickly waking up and worrying about the overwhelming amount of processed food we have been brainwashed to consume for so long, many of us are now convinced that sugar is bad. I say, that it is not. What is bad is the over consumption of plain glucose, which has been stripped from whole plants such as sugar cane, beets, corn, etc, removing all the other valuable (and tasty!) nutrients, vitamins and benefits that Mother Nature designed that plant to contain.
After enjoying Tapa Dulce for so long with my tea and coffee and yogurt, and with my supply from Panama about to run out, I cringe sadly at the thought of soon having to turn to refined sugar instead of my dark brown miel de caña.
I dream of the day here in T&T when farming, land and water protection, and food security are returned to the throne of reverence and respect that they so deserve. The math ads up and voices of honest science are finally being heard. On my sugar infused and educational day in Costa Rica, as we visited a friend who was assisting in the dismantlement of an old sugar refinery, he took the thoughts right out of my head, in telling me in his rapid-fire Costa Rican español: “Now the foreigners are paying more for this stuff – it’s easier to make and doesn’t need a big factory, but they know it’s healthier and it tastes so much better. So they’re paying more for it. And it’s cheaper to make.”