Tag Archives: Miraflor

How to Make Tortillas: A Photo Diary

The corn is sowed by hand into oxen-ploughed furrows and watered by winter rains.  Mature after several months, the corn is wrapped in its husk and left to dry on the stalk.

Each mazorca is collected and hauled back to the house on horseback to be husked.  Abuelito Prospero pops the kernels off into a large gourd bowl.

The kernels are cooked with ashes and water for an hour.  This process, called nixtamalization, softens the kernels, improves their flavor, and increases their nutritional value.

After they’ve cooled, Ana washes the kernels in several changes of water and leaves them in fresh water to soak overnight.

The next morning, the kernels are milled twice—once to “break” them, then to make the masa smoother.  Julio works the hand mill in the kitchen.

Dora shapes the masa into thick tortillas and fires them on the comal.

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“Cutting Coffee”

Yosselin, Naomi, and my basket of berries

December and January are cool and lush after the winter rains, and the months of the coffee harvest in northern Nicaragua.  In Matagalpa, the commercial center of coffee production, gray-beaned café en pergamino is spread out on black tarps by the side of the road to dry in the sun.

Nicaragua has many small family producers organized into cooperatives, conducive to growing high-quality Arabica beans for the Fair Trade, organic, and shade-grown markets.  The farmers in Miraflor are organized into several cooperatives, one with a cupping lab.

Yancy "cortando cafe"

In Miraflor during the season nearly everyone of working age spends some time cortando café, literally “cutting coffee,” making about 40 córdobas a ten-pound bucket, or $2.  My friend Alex has a few acres of coffee plants growing in the shade of oak and jocote trees and I hiked up the hill from the house one morning to pick coffee with him.  I wove through rows of glossy, dark-leaved bushes dotted with lime-green, yellow, and reddish-pink berries to find him.

Portrait of a newbie harvester (taken by 12 year-old Yosselin)

Alex gave me a big woven basket that I wore in front with two thin leather straps looped around my shoulders.  Almairie and her daughters Yosselin, 12 and Yancy, 9 (aunt and cousins of “my” family) showed me how to pull down the meter-tall bushes to get to the ripe red or yellow berries on top once I’d stripped the lower branches.  The technique for picking the berries, Alex explained, was to pull without yanking, leaving the stem on the plant.  If the stem is removed, no new growth is possible.

Soon I got the hang of it, a twisting pull, then dropping the firm berries in my basket, fingers sticky and stained brown.  Yosselin complimented me on my technique, “¡Cortás bien bonito Sara!”  “You cut well!” as she deftly harvested berries into a halved plastic jug tied around her waist.

Unable to resist the bright red berry, I popped one into my mouth, sucking the thin layer of pulp off the beans.  It tasted, well, vegetable-like, but sweet.

Time passed quickly as Almairie’s 2 ½ year-old daughter Naomi kept us cracking up with comments about her “snot-nosed” sisters and Yosselin peppered me with questions about travel (How high do the planes fly?  What do the clouds look like from the plane?)

At intervals we stopped to dump the berries into bags at the end of the rows.  Almairie worked from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. that day, when Alex loaded the bags onto his horse and carried them up to the mill.  Then they were de-pulped and laid out to dry, eventually to be de-husked, roasted, and ground into the lifeblood of the north, café.

The de-pulping machine



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La ducha, y Ana, Dora y Esteffany getting ready for the festival de maiz

Miraflor is the name of the rural area in northern Nicaragua where I volunteered several times over the last seven years.  I returned there two weeks ago to visit my host family, mi familia Nicaraguense, for the first time in 3 years.  I was amazed at both how much had changed and how much was the same: Ana, at 25 the eldest daughter, now has a year and a half-old daughter; Maykal, who was a silly, gangly 8 year-old when I first met him, is about to turn 16; the house has grown to accommodate older children and their children, with the kitchen now in a separate structure; and the family now has 4 dogs where my first year there they had none.

Thankfully though, the “kids” are the same: Maykal still curious and open and Deira, now 19, quick to make silly jokes and (mostly) up for the excursions around the countryside that I propose. Dora and Juan, the parents, have aged somewhat but are still tireless in their work around the house, in endless motion to cook and feed animals and people, repair the earthen floors and adobe walls, wash clothes, and harvest.

In the village many people now have electricity, some with refrigerators and flat-screen TVs in addition to the bare bulbs hung from the ceiling in the main sala of the house.

Yet the women still cook over open fires in adobe hearths, get their water from a common tap outside, and the earthen floors are criss-crossed by hens, dogs, cats, and children throughout the day.  My host family lives just past the last house with electricity—the government project to bring la luz petered out 2 years ago, so they rely on a solar panel and an old car battery for a small amount of electricity, enough to cook and eat by at night.

When it rains, the water flows down the corrugations of the roof and pools on the bare earth around the house, then runs over the exposed rocks and into the garden.  The foliage in front of the house is dense, hiding the road from sight, and the pale, broad leaves of the malanga and short, glossy leaves of the jocote alike perk and grow in the downpour, bathed with water.

The rain starts as a feathery drizzle on the tin roof, gaining in volume and intensity, now like rolling iron nails, then drumming, then pounding, blocking out any conversation.  Waves of thunder, sudden cracks that coincide with bright flashes, the house dark even at midday with the sky turned deep gray.

One day it rained like that for 2 hours, and afterwards the road up to la Pita was muddy and the river crossings impassable except on foot or horseback, the road filled with boulders and deep sand bars.  I was on my way back from the cosecha, the harvest festival, with Dora and Deira when the rain started.  We barely made it to a house along the path, ducking into the front porch just as the downpour began.  From the porch we watched the rain stream off the roof in silvery ropes between each corrugation.

Some days I just lie in bed and listen to the rain, for as Dora says, “Es rico acostarse cuando hay mucha lluvia,” or “it’s delicious to rest when it’s raining hard.”

After the rain the mud oozes underfoot of pigs, dogs, and people, sucking off flip-flops with ease.  The stream runs higher and louder, now a low roar where before I only caught its sound at night when the lights were out, and crickets, too.

Despite the water everywhere, and the cooler climate in the mountains, it is very important to bathe every day.  The people here bathe from (and get the day’s water from) an all-purpose cement pool behind every house called la pila.  They scoop out panfuls of water and quickly pour them over themselves, then lather up with green blocks of soap that also serve as laundry detergent. When I first came to the village I learned to bathe that way, but out of a bucket protected in a little three-sided shelter for privacy (everyone else just strips down to their underwear).  Now there is a shower of sorts,that only I (and visiting tourists) use.

The three-sided cinder block ducha opens up to the sky and jocote trees, and the smoke that floats up from the adobe kitchen.  Small green plants grow underfoot, and the water runs out through a hole in the cement floor to the garden.  It rained nearly every day when I visited, and at times I was hard-pressed to motivate to bathe in cold water on a cloudy day!  One trick I use is taking a short hike down the road and back to work up a bit of a sweat first!

One day I turned on the tap and watched as the first drops of water came out of the grey plastic tubo, willing myself to plunge under.  Suddenly the water turned brown, then slimy, and out popped a tiny frog!  It clung to the edge of the tube with one foot as I yelped in shock, “una rana salió del tubo!”  I heard Dora and Ana laughing in the kitchen as I gently pulled it off and tossed it into the garden.

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