Paris hosts annual agriculture fair February 19th-27th

Paris agriculture fairParis may be one of the global epicenters of fashion, but next week, the city will be more sow’s ear than silk purse (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). The The New York Times reports that the 48th annual Salon de l’Agriculture will run Feb. 19th to the 27th at the Porte de Versailles. The festival is a showcase for France’s finest livestock (over 3,500 animals will be in attendance) and farm-related events and activities. The featured line-up includes rare cow breeds; sheep-herding competitions; gardening workshops, traditional music, produce stands, farm machinery displays, a children’s area, and panel discussions.

The Salon’s theme for this year is “Farming and Food: The French Model,” inspired by UNESCO, which last November added the French gastronomic meal to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (whew). Food samples and farmstead products will also be available from the winners of the Concours Général Agricole, an annual competition of France’s signature food and drink products. And keep an eye out for Nicolas Sarkozy; the French president traditionally makes an appearance at the festival.

P.S. The twelve euro entry fee may just be the best deal in Paris. Try getting a good cheese for that.

In the Heart of Central America: Cowboys and coffee in Copan, Honduras

Located in the northwest of Honduras, just a few miles from the Guatemalan border, the area known as Copan has a landscape of lush green rolling hills, coffee plantations and cattle ranches. This is pure cowboy country. In Copan Ruins, horses clip-clop softy over the stone streets and the jangle of spurs can be heard as men in boots, jeans and cowboy hats wander through town. A few miles away, cowboy Carlos Castejon warmly welcomes guests to his family’s coffee, cardamom, and cattle ranch to learn about the farm’s production.

Finca el Cisne has been owned Carlos’ family since 1885. What started as a simple farm growing Arabica coffee, corn, and beans, has grown to encompass 800 hectares (40% of which is primary forest). Visitors to the Finca will drive for nearly twenty minutes from the start of the family’s land to the main house, passing by the dwellings of Carlos’ employees who live on the land. In 2002 Carlos decided to expand the farm’s operations to include agritourism. With a subtle, quick wit, a penchant for teasing his guests (in a good-natured way) while providing an interesting and informative experience, and a clear passion for his home country, Carlos is the perfect host.

While in Honduras, I was able to spend a day at the Finca, which starts with a stop at Carlos’ rustic guesthouse. Equipped with five rooms, running water and electricity, the guesthouse is very basic but inviting. Guests who chose to come just for the day will arrive at 8am and depart at 6pm. With transportation from town the outing costs $64 per person. Once you arrive at the Finca, you’ll get to sample some of Carlos’ coffee and a light breakfast prepared from ingredients grown on the farm, such as mashed banana stuffed with beans and served with cheese, an unusual combination that was actually delicious.

From there Carlos took my group on a tour, stopping to point out the many fruits grown on the property, including passion-fruit, mango, mandarin, avocado, banana, plantain, breadfruit, starfruit, lime and grapefruit. Along the way, he’d reach for a fruit, sliver off a piece with his knife, and pass out samples.

Then we were off to the coffee mill to learn about how coffee is produced from start to finish. First Carlos showed us the fruit, which blooms in stages from January to April and begins ripening in December. When the fruit turns red, it is handpicked and the beans are extracted from the fruit (which is used for compost) by machine. The beans are fermented, washed, and then cycled through a series of troughs that allow the low-quality beans to run off and the higher quality (heavier) beans to remain until they are pushed through.

The beans are then spread on the ground to sun dry (and then often moved to a drum to machine dry) and the finished green beans are extracted from their shells. The majority of the beans will be exported while they are still green and then roasted to the taste of their destination country.

While all of this was fascinating for me (and the smell of the coffee was making me rethink my aversion to caffeine), I was anxious to get to the next part….the horseback riding. So Carlos led us over to a small pasture where several horses were saddled and waiting. As the most experienced in the group, I was given the horse Carlos normally rides, while he rode a younger horse that he was training.

With Carlos and another guide we set out to explore the property. Again Carlos would stop, point out the many fruits and edible flowers growing around us, and offer up tasty samples. We walked and trotted our way along a dirt road and then entered a field where Carlos gave us the go-ahead to pick up a little speed. I leaned forward, gave my horse some free rein, and we were off, galloping through the brush and up a hill. After an exhilarating ride to the top, my horse simply stopped and waited for the rest of the group to catch up.

For another hour we explored the property, taking in the views of the rolling green valley below, passing cows and horses grazing in the fields, and again and again taking off at a breathtaking but controlled gallop through the countryside. I can honestly say it was the single best horseback riding experience I have ever had while traveling. All too soon it was time to head back to the house for lunch.

We wandered around the main house gawking at photos of Carlo’s ancestors with jaguars they shot on the property to keep them from eating the cattle. We sat down to a lunch of traditional Honduran food (the menu for which changes based on seasonal availability). We started with coffee (of course), fresh orange juice, and a bean soup with fresh-made corn tortillas and cheese. Then heaping plates of food were served family-style, including potatoes, watercress salad, braised beef, and more beans, tortillas, and fresh cheese. A sweet plantain in a syrup of cardamom from the farm was served for dessert. To complete the day, and to help soothe any sore muscles from the ride, Carlos takes guests to the local hot springs for a relaxing soak.

There are other coffee tours in Copan, and I had the opportunity to do another one during my time in the region. But this one was the best. The tour was informative and, thanks to Carlos’ humor and passion, very entertaining. Lunch was delicious, the property was beautiful, and I think there is no better way to see this area of cowboys and coffee plantations than on the back of a horse.

This trip was paid for by the Honduras Institute of Tourism, but the views express are entirely my own.

You can read other posts from my series on Honduras here.

The Spice Isle: Nutmeg’s always the answer in Grenada

You wouldn’t know it from the abundance of nutmeg in shops, but Grenada’s production of the spice stopped five years ago. And it’ll continue to be at a halt for another five years. Why? Because of Hurricane Ivan. 82% of the island’s nutmeg trees were destroyed by the 2004 hurricane.

But amazingly enough, there’s still plenty of nutmeg there.

On my recent trip to Grenada, I found it everywhere — mostly whole (as large seeds) and ground. But at any market, you’ll also find it as jelly and jam, as essence and oil, as syrup for ice cream, as a sugary candy (oddly named “nutmeg cheese”), and in everything else from ice cream to coffee. Buy one of the island’s rum drinks from the bar, and you’ll always get a finishing touch of grated nutmeg on top. It even has medicinal purposes –- Nut-Med comes as a lotion or spray to relieve pain in muscles and joints.

Is it just me, or does it seem to make everything happy, like egg nog during the holidays?

Actually, it may be scientifically proven. It’s been said that if you get a big enough whiff of the fresh spice, you’ll get a type of addictive high.

%Gallery-77070%Even despite Hurricane Ivan’s wrath, the country remains the world’s #2 nutmeg supplier (behind Indonesia), because of its stockpile.

The island isn’t known as “The Spice Isle” for nothing. It boasts more spices per square mile than any other place in the world, including cinnamon, cloves, mace, turmeric, and allspice. And no other is more abundant than nutmeg.

Known as the “black gold of Grenada,” nutmeg is so beloved and ubiquitous that it’s on the national flag. But, surprisingly, it’s not indigenous – it was introduced to the island by the Indonesians.

To see nutmeg at its source – and to get some helpful insider knowledge – a good place to stop is the Dougaldston Spice Boucan.

At the boucan (spice-drying shed), guides pass around samples to illustrate that the nutmeg grows on a tree within a pod. You can’t rush the growing – you have to wait for it to naturally split in two, rather than breaking it apart. Inside, you’ll find a hard brown shell that’s the size of a small egg.

At this stage, the waxy fingers of mace that surrounds the shell gets all of the attention. But it deserves to – it takes center stage with its brilliant red color. Take off the mace and dry it for a few days (it’ll eventually change to a dull orange color), then use it to season things like soup and pies.

As for the nutmeg, let it dry as well. After about eight weeks, shake it and you’ll hear the seed inside. That means it’s time to crack the shell and grate the nutmeg.

The Dougaldston Spice Boucan isn’t limited to nutmeg and mace. It gives a good crash course on other things grown and processed on the grounds, like cocoa, bay leaves, and cinnamon.

Alison Brick traveled through Grenada on a trip sponsored by the Grenada Board of Tourism. That said, she could write about anything that struck her fancy. (And it just so happens that these are the things that struck her fancy.) You can read more from her The Spice Isle: Grenada series here.

Stop giving money to Africa!

There’s been a lot of press and policy rejiggering over traditional attitudes towards African aid. We’ve seen for decades of its effects, or more accurately, lack of. One example from this year really showcases how domestic policies and investments, not aid, can pull Africa out of poverty.

In 2005, five of the 15 million people in Malawi needed emergency food aid. But this year, thanks to heavier agricultural subsidies (which goes against Western policies), it’s actually exporting hundreds of thousands of tons of corn.

As hard as it it to think about starving children, perhaps it’s more unsettling to think about starving children being around for generation after generation. But that’s what financial aid does. Africans don’t need handouts as much as they need investments and policies to cultivate entrepreneurial spirit.

Still, I do feel somewhat bad for taking this stance, so to make up for it, I’m directing you to Free Rice (“for each word you get right, we donate 20 grains of rice”).