Tag Archives: Nicaragua

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.




Burying poverty and misery

9 Feb


The banner photograph at the top of Blanco’s Blog was taken last year in Granada, Nicaragua at the VII International Festival of Poetry, towards the end of a rather hectic afternoon, on which misery and poverty were cast into Lake Nicaragua, encased in a coffin. Whether or not it worked I am yet to see, but am returning to Granada this weekend, with Mrs Blanco, so may find out. I doubt very much whether Daniel Ortega’s re-election as president will have secured the objectives aimed for by the coffin-carrying devils of last year, pictured here by the Scottish poet Brian Johnstone, but next Wednesday, apparently, Las Lágrimas del desamor or the ‘tears of indifference’ will be done away with and buried. We’ll see how that goes.

But to return to the photo on the blog’s banner, a couple of people have pointed out how the black-masked demon pops up behind the three amigos: he is easy to miss, as he seems an integral part of the background. This picture has haunted me for a long time, and I have practically no memory of taking it; everything was happening very quickly, and I certainly didn’t notice the reaper coming up on the left.

The Festival is held every February in the ancient city of Granada, supposedly the first to be built by the Spanish on the American mainland. Poets are invited from around the world: last year over fifty countries were represented by around a hundred poets.  My main interest is concerned with a project I have been working on for the past eighteen months: I am putting together an anthology of contemporary Latin American poetry.  This year, apart from the many poets from Latin America who will be attending, there are big names from the English-speaking world: Derek Walcott and Robert Pinsky (as well, of course, as my other Scottish compadre, Tom Pow).

More will follow.


9 Aug


All your stories are about yourself, she said, even when they seem to be about other people. I was not going to deny this, nor give her the pleasure of being right. So I quoted Proust, who said that writers don’t invent books; they find them within themselves and translate them. This seemed to do the trick, and she fell silent. I dipped my fingers into a bowl of scented water and started on the rice. An aftertaste of clay and leaves and metal took me by surprise. What is in this rice? I asked her. Mushroom stock? Shotgun cartridge? Earthworm? No, she said, peering at me through the candlelight, the stories that you haven’t written yet are in the rice. You must be tasting them.




Reading ‘Translation’ at International Poetry Festival of Granada, Nicaragua, February 2011.


Spanish version by Sadurní Vergès, read by Melisa Machado.


From ‘Sad Giraffe Cafe‘ by Richard Gwyn (Arc, 2010).

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.



21 Jul

The acrobats were packing up the show. They untied the high-wire, collected hoops, poles, buckets, horses, dogs, a lion, two seals, the bearded lady, sand, fire and water. They emptied all of these into one enormous bag, coloured blue, like the sky. The largest acrobat zipped it up. The girl in the tutu and the red-nosed clown massaged it into a rucksack, which the strongman hoisted on his shoulders. They set off, at a quick pace. They could not see me. I had been hiding in an old shoe, behind a rock. I could see the rucksack on the strongman’s back. It seemed to shudder and breathe, and made the sound that a thousand starlings make every autumn evening in a certain coastal town in another country.

From Sad Giraffe Café (Arc, 2010)

‘Acrobats’ at Granada International Festival, Nicaragua, February 2011.