Trying to Find a Good Cup of Coffee in Costa Rica

One of the greatest enigmas, not to mention frustrations of Costa Rica, is that even though it is famous the world over for the quality of its coffee – its almost impossible to get a decent cup of coffee in the country itself.  Much of the best coffee seems to be exported. Travellers stock up with packs of finest quality Britt coffee as they leave the country.
Still one of Costa Rica’s most important crops, coffee is not as I had supposed, indigenous to the country, but was introduced from Ethiopia in the early 1800’s. When it was planted originally, it was greatly sought after as a fashionable ornamental plant to decorate courtyards - its glossy green leaves, white blossom and red berries are beautiful year round.
The Central Highlands of Costa Rica are ideally suited to coffee cultivation It thrives in areas where the temperatures average 15-28C with a distinct wet and dry season - Coffee grows best in well drained soil at elevations of 2,500-3,000 feet
.The Costa Rican government quickly saw the potential of the grana del ora, but had difficulty persuading the Costa Ricans to grow the crop. In the early 1800’s they brought in a law requiring everyone to plant at least a couple of coffee plants in their back yard. Coffee growing soon took off and by 1829 it was the nation’s numero uno earner. Needless to say it was a godsend for Costa Rica’s subsistence farmers, it provided them with a vital income on which no tax was levied. Coffee was widely planted .
For years, small farmers dominated production and earned their fair share of the wealth. But as ever, the real profits were concentrated in relatively few hands, the coffee processors who became known as the coffee barons, became Costa Rica’s first social and political elite.
Originally the beans were carried by ox cart or mule trains through the mountains to the Pacific port of Puntarenas to be transported by boat via Cape Horn to the coffee connoisseurs of Europe.
Coffee seeds are planted in nurseries, where they remain until they are a year old. They are then transplanted into the ground in rows that follow the contours of the mountain. Some of the fields are almost vertical, it is difficult to visualise how pickers can keep themselves from tumbling down the slopes as they pick the coffee berries. The answer lies in the ingenious way of planting trees directly behind one another so that the trunk of the downhill tree serves as a foothold for the pickers.
The bushes are planted under the shade of trees or tousled banana palms which fix nitrogen in the soil. Shaded coffee bushes are more productive. The first crop can be harvested in the fourth year and the glossy green bushes will continue to bear fruit for up to 40 years. At the beginning of the rainy season tiny white blossoms scent the air with a delicious jasmine like fragrance. The beans themselves are surrounded by lush green berries that turn blood red when ripe.
There is nowhere else in the world where coffee producers attain such high productivity per acre. Ideal conditions combined with high yielding plants and intensive production techniques. The best quality coffee grows at higher elevations where beans take longer to mature and are more robust and aromatic and contain less caffeine. Best coffee comes from the Arabica bean, the high yielding robusta bean is less highly regarded.
The coffee crop is harvested from November to January which coincides with the Christmas holidays, so it is traditional for entire families in the rural areas to take to the fields with wicker baskets to pick the coffee beans together. Some of the money earned is used for Christmas presents and new outfits.
The handpicked berries are shipped to beneficios where the fleshy outer layer is removed to expose the beans which are blow dried and spread out in the sun in the traditional manner. The leathery skins are then stripped away, the beans are roasted, sorted, vacuum packed, sealed and shipped to market and finally brewed for a delicious cup of Costa Rican coffee.

Ballymaloe Coffee Ice Cream with Irish Coffee Sauce

Serves 6-8
Coffee Ice Cream
2 ozs (55g) sugar
4 fl ozs (120ml) water
2 egg yolks, preferably free range
2 teasp. vanilla essence
1 pint (600ml) whipped cream
3 teasp. instant coffee
2 teasp. boiling water
Irish Coffee Sauce
8 ozs (225g) sugar
3 fl ozs (80ml) water
8 fl ozs (250ml) coffee
1 tablesp. Irish whiskey
Put the egg yolks into a bowl and whisk until light and fluffy. Put the sugar and water into a small heavy bottomed saucepan on a low heat. Stir until all the sugar is dissolved and then remove the spoon and do not stir again until the syrup reaches the thread stage, 106-113C/223-226F. It will look thick and syrupy; when a metal spoon is dipped in, the last drops of syrup will form thin threads. Pour this boiling syrup in a steady stream onto the egg yolks, whisking all the time. Continue to whisk until it fluffs up to a light mousse which will hold a figure of eight. Stir in the Vanilla essence, mix the instant coffee powder with just 2 teaspoon of boiling water in a little bowl. Add some mousse to the paste and then fold the two together. Carefully fold in the softly whipped cream. Pour into a stainless steel or plastic bowl, cover and freeze.
Irish Coffee Sauce
Put the sugar and water in a heavy bottomed saucepan, stir until the sugar dissolves and the water comes to the boil. Remove the spoon and do not stir again until the syrup turns a pale golden caramel. Then add the coffee and put back on the heat to dissolve. Allow to cool and add the whiskey.
To serve:
Scoop the ice cream into a serving bowl or ice bowl. Serve the sauce separately.

Coffee Marjolaine Cake

This cake consists of four thin rounds of meringue sandwiched together with coffee butter cream, the top and sides are also covered with the cream and decorated with toasted almonds.
This cake should be made several days before it is needed, it will have softened and be much easier to cut. It should be kept in the fridge, covered, at least overnight.
3 ozs (90g) almonds
4 egg whites
9 ozs (255g) icing sugar
Coffee Butter Cream
4 ozs (110g) granulated sugar
8 tablesp. water
4 egg yolks
102 ozs (300g) butter
coffee essence to flavour
6-8 ozs (170-225g) flaked almonds, toasted
Cover 4 baking sheets with bakewell or silicone paper. Draw out 4 x 8 or 9 inch (20.5 or 23cm) circles on the paper.
Blanch and skin the almonds. Chop or grind in a food processor, they should not be ground to a fine powder but be slightly coarse and gritty. In a spotlessly clean bowl of a food mixer mix all the sugar with the egg whites at once and beat until the mixture forms stiff dry peaks. Fold in the almonds. Divide the meringue between the four circles on the silicone paper, spread neatly, about 3 inch (5mm) thick. Bake immediately in a moderate oven, 150C/300F/regulo 2 for approx. 1 hour or until the discs are quite crisp and will peel off the paper easily. Allow to get quite cold.
Next make the coffee butter cream. Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until dissolved. Remove the spoon and bring to the boil, boil gently until 216F is reached or until the syrup is at 'thread' stage. Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl until pale and fluffy. Gradually pour the hot syrup over the egg yolks, whisking all the time, continue until the mixture is thick and light. Cream the butter and gradually beat into the egg mixture. Flavour with coffee essence. Keep aside. Toast the flaked almonds and set aside to cool.
To assemble the marjolaine, sandwich the four circles of meringue together with coffee butter cream, (if necessary trim the sides to neaten*), then spread more butter cream around the sides of the cake and roll in the flaked almonds. Cover the top of the cake with butter cream and sprinkle generously with the remainder of the toasted almonds. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
* If the edges are jagged it will be difficult to ice later.

Chocolate-covered Coffee Beans

Irresistible nibbles or great decorations for cakes, mousses, and Chocolate or Coffee desserts.
3 ozs (85g) dark chocolate, at least 54 per cent cocoa solids
4 tablesp. medium roast coffee beans
Melt the chocolate gently in a small bowl over a saucepan of hot water. When the chocolate is softened add the roasted coffee beans. Stir to coat the beans, then lift them out with a fork and drop them on to a plate or marble slab evenly covered with non-stick silicone paper. Separate each bean, then leave to harden. Remove the beans with a palette knife and store in an air-tight jar. Alternatively, drop the wet chocolate coated beans on to a plate or marble slab covered thickly with sieved good quality cocoa powder. Separate as above and leave to harden.

Creamy Iced Coffee

Serves 2
8 fl ozs (250ml) strong , fresh coffee, chilled
1 tablesp. caster sugar
8 fl ozs (250ml) crushed ice cubes
3 tablesp. double cream
Pour the coffee, sugar and crushed ice into a blender or food processor. Mix until light brown and frothy. Stir in the double cream, pour into 2 glasses and serve immediately.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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