Tag Archives: Mombacho

In Praise of Coffee

1 Mar

A sample of Blanco's coffee haul


Who first thought to pluck the coffee bean from a tree, dry it, do to it the complicated things that need attending to, and brewing a hot cup of the stuff? Like so many other human discoveries, the odds on this ever happening seem so remote as to defy imagining. I mean, why would anyone bother? And how many horrible concoctions did people try out before hitting on the right one? How many were fatal, and how many caused the ardent experimenter to call out ‘O God, why did I try to smoke/drink that?’ But there seems no lack of ingenuity in humans’ attempts to eat, drink, imbibe, smoke or snort just about every leaf, bean, bark or blossom under the sun. And why not.

I have just opened, and brewed a pot of the sample on the left of the picture, an espresso roast from Las Flores plantation, Nicaragua. It is delicious and strong, but unlike other dark roasts doesn’t leave any nasty metallic aftertaste. I wish I could share a cup with you, although rumour has it that Coffee a Go Go in Cardiff’s St Andrew’s Place have a small allocation, which is their guest bean today.


Coffee beans ready for picking


On my recent trip to VIII International Poetry Festival of Granada in Nicaragua, I retuned with my suitcase laden down (it hit 27 kilos so I had to plant some on Mrs Blanco – has anyone tampered with your luggage madam . . )  not with tomes of poetry (there was some of true value, and I think I got what I needed there) but with a selection of coffee beans.  While there, we also enjoyed a tour of one plantation, where we learned, for example, that due to the delicacy of the small sprigs, the coffee beans have to be hand-picked with a gentle downward movement, because if the stems are bent back the wrong way, they will not produce fruit the next year. This is backbreaking and demanding labour, and cannot be carried out recklessly.

I spent several winters in my younger years picking olives, and (depending on the location, and the destination of the olive) this activity can be carried out with varying degrees of vigour, but none of them involve quite such a delicate technique as coffee-picking.


One bean at a time


And then there’s the wages paid to the pickers. On most plantations this is minimal – and their living conditions appalling, which is why it is important to try and buy coffee from a responsible source – not easy when half the coffees in the supermarket are labelled under the ambiguous (and almost meaningless) ‘Fair Trade’ label.

A good cup of coffee is a priceless thing, and those beans have made quite a journey. It makes one wonder if there are any decent coffee poems. So I do a search, and am delighted to find there is an entire literature reflecting our love affair with the bean, notably in a site titled, usefully, a history of coffee in literature.

Here is an example, from the little known (early 19th century?) English poet Geoffrey Sephton, extolling the virtues of Kauhee (or coffee) as opposed to those nasty opiates that were all the rage at the time:



To The Mighty Monarch, King Kauhee


Away with opiates! Tantalising snares

To dull the brain with phantoms that are not.

Let no such drugs the subtle senses rot

With visions stealing softly unawares

Into the chambers of the soul. Nightmares

Ride in their wake, the spirits to besot.

Seek surer means to banish haunting cares:

Place on the board the steaming Coffee-pot!

O’er luscious fruit, dessert and sparkling flask,

Let proudly rule as King the Great Kauhee[1],

For he gives joy divine to all that ask,

Together with his spouse, sweet Eau de Vie.

Oh, let us ‘neath his sovran pleasure bask.

Come, raise the fragrant cup and bend the knee!


O great Kauhee, thou democratic Lord,

Born ‘neath the tropic sun and bronzed to


In lands of Wealth and Wisdom, who can render

Such service to the wandering Human Horde

As thou at every proud or humble board?

Beside the honest workman’s homely fender,

‘Mid dainty dames and damsels sweetly tender.

In china, gold and silver, have we poured

Thy praise and sweetness, Oriental King.

Oh, how we love to hear the kettle sing

In joy at thy approach, embodying

The bitter, sweet and creamy sides of life;

Friend of the People, Enemy of Strife,

Sons of the Earth have born thee labouring.




Brief from Nicaragua

15 Feb

At four in the morning there is a noise of riotous celebration from the nearby square, but I cannot be bothered to make it to the balcony to discover its source. Then there is an hour or so of quiet before the deafening screech of birdsong that signals both the beginning and the end of daylight in the tropics. From the trees circling the park hundreds of birds dance, joust, leap and dive in a frenzied avian fiesta.


Cloud forest at Mombacho


Yesterday began with an excursion to the cloud forest volcano of Mombacho – in which we saw howler monkeys


howler monkey from rear


and many birds, including the black headed trogon (trogón cabecinegro, in Spanish) pictured here,


Black headed trogon


after visiting two coffee plantations, sampling their delicious brews, and witnessing a possum asleep in a bucket


Possum in a bucket

Our excellent guide José, and friends, at Mombacho


– and concluded with an interminable poetry reading, extremely mixed in quality, but beginning with a single (new) poem by Ernesto Cardenal on the sacking of the museum of Baghdad, and ending with Derek Walcott, again reading a single poem, Sea Grapes. Between these two octogenarian maestros – and with one or two exceptions – a number of distinctly indifferent poets went on for far too long, though I will refrain from mentioning the worst offenders.

Granada is an extraordinary festival, which is growing in importance and recognition, but which needs reining in and the exertion of greater balance in the selection of invited poets. This year, like last, I have met some wonderful individuals, made new friends, and learned a lot, but have also had to listen to far too much bad poetry. Fortunately, Walcott’s Sea Grapes does not fall into this category.


 Sea Grapes

That sail which leans on light,
tired of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean;
that father and husband’s

longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is
like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name
in every gull’s outcry.

This brings nobody peace. The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility
will never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,
since Troy sighed its last flame,

and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough
from whose groundswell the great hexameters come
to the conclusions of exhausted surf.

The classics can console. But not enough.


Or you can listen to Walcott reading it here.











Bareback Riders

1 Aug


Sorting through photos on my laptop, intending to send some off for printing, I come across two pictures from February this year, on a trip to Mombacho, in Nicaragua. They are of a very poor quality, but on recognizing them I remember the expression of exhilaration on the faces of the bareback riders.

We had been delivered to the volcano, ascending through a tropics of livid growth, lush greenery, past the coffee plantations, up into the cloud forest; seen the salamanders and monstrous beetles and butterflies and the rare orchids, one of which, Mombachensis, is named after this mountain. Then the long drive down, and as we finally hit the flatlands, two boys, one around ten years old, the other younger, appear out of the bush on horseback. The boys ride bareback and are shoeless, and they are grinning and shouting and yahooing. Their exuberance is contagious even through the windows of the minibus. For a few seconds they are galloping alongside us, before the driver accelerates away. By the time I have my phone out they have fallen behind, and the young riders through the rear window are nothing more than shapes in the road, the sun behind them, the distance between us growing.