"Every planet has its own weird customs. About a year before we met, I spent six weeks on a moon where the principal form of recreation was juggling geese. My hand to God. Baby geese - goslings! They were juggled."

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The makers of panela: How to transform sugar cane into sugar

Yesterday another group from Siempre Verde passed through Pucara visiting a 'molienda,' or panela-making facility, and the community tree nursery.  When they left, the panela makers insisted I stay with them until the end - and it was just noon.  They began work at 3 a.m., helping themselves to doses of the Mexicano, a drink of trago (alcohol) with cane juice.  They figured they would be done by around 6 p.m.  The process is so incredible, so magical (am I being too cheesy?), that I did indeed stay to see all their 'paradas' through.  And I decided to show it all here and take you from live sugar cane stalks to juice to pure delicious sugar.

So the magic starts here:

Cutting the sugar cane for two whole days prior to the molienda
Next they pass each cleaned stalk through a gas-powered press, and the juice is caught and moves down a tube to a holding tank.

This is the cane juice extracted from the stalk and passed through a few filters where it begins warming in the tank below.

There are five tanks in this molienda.  The first tank (closest) holds one 'parada' (or batch) of sugar, the next two tanks hold the next parada, and the last two tanks hold the last parada, or the one most ready to be poured and set.

While the cane juice is cooking, it requires constant attention.  Sometimes the 'melero' (the person working the sugar) needs to use giant ladles made from dried gourds to pass the liquid from one of the two parada tanks to the other, then back again.

Soon foam forms on the surface of the paradas and the meleros here insist on skimming it off because it improves the taste of the sugar.  They also call it 'otavalillu' and say it's a delicacy, so when they skim off a wooden bowlful, they try to drink it instead of toss it out.

Except it is very, very sweet.  It has a unique flavor from cane juice and from panela, and it's only one of many different products they can create - not just sugar.

This guy is called the 'hornero,' or the guy who stokes the fire below the tanks.  One of the many beauties of this operation is that the squeezed and dried cane stalks are used to fuel the oven.

One of the meleros offers otavalillu to the Siempre Verde students.  The meleros are VERY proud of their work and they should be.  They love sharing every bit about the process with the community and visitors.

Next, a scoop of boiling-hot caramel-like sugar is poured into a wooden basin (called the caballo, or horse) and an artisan begins working a bit of it with a wood spatula.  At first he pushes the spatula around rapidly, then begins twirling the sugar until it turns from dark brown to light brown incorporating air bubbles.

Then in one fraction of a second, the sugar is twisted into a pillar right when it sets.  Sugar left on the spatula is pulled off, rolled to a ball, and stuck on top.

It's called 'santo,' or saint, because it ends up looking like a figurine.  And it is delicious, by far a favorite of everyone of any sugar product because of its light, airy texture.  It just melts in your mouth.

Now the parada in the last tank is released into a wood tank to cool and be worked over for maybe 10 or so minutes with a giant wooden paddle.  Kids love to dip spatulas in this and stick the boiling goo in water to cool, thus making caramel.

These are the sugar molds.  Other operations focus on making grain sugar, which is a slightly different process.  The molds must be slightly damp so the sugar doesn't stick to them (so this guy is wiping them down with a cloth) but they can't be wet or the sugar won't set properly.

The melero then scoops up a gourdful of panela and pours it expertly into the molds as the Siempre Verde kids look on.

It gets tougher as the sugar cools.

When the sugar sets (about 15 minutes, but longer to be on the safe side), they're popped out and joined together into panela hamburgers.  Each hamburger is worth $4.  In each parada, they produce maybe 15 hamburgers.  And in one day, they made a whopping six paradas.  I'll leave the math to you.

What kids wouldn't love to visit a sugar-making factory?


  1. i love this process! except i totally burned a batch today :(

  2. Oh no!! :( it's such a fine line between good sugar and burnt sugar. But you're making sugar??

  3. yeah! the socios that i work with are all sugar cane farmers. each of them make their own panela at their house.

  4. The foam off the top is definitely an acquired taste. Some people can't get enough of it. Other people, like me, are okay with a teaspoon full.