There is really no mystique to making coffee in Mexico. If you can boil water and have some cinnamon sticks, you can make coffee the way they still make it down on the rancho, the way it is still made in many small restaurantes and mercados (markets).
Diana Kennedy’s excellent book, The Cuisines of Mexico, provided my first instructions for making café de olla many years ago. And I probably learned from one of her books that an olla (pronounced OH-yah) is a round, earthenware pot, bulbous at the bottom, used for making coffee, hot chocolate, beans, soups, and much more. Mexican cooks swear that earthenware pots impart a better flavor.
Coffee has been a hot drink in Mexico since its arrival from Africa, via the Middle East and Europe in the late 18th. century, when it was brought from Cuba and the Dominican Republic by the Spanish. By the 1790s, coffee was being cultivated in the Gulf state of Vera Cruz. It wasn’t until after the Mexican Revolution that Mexican farmers saw it as a viable commercial crop.
Throughout the coffee growing states of Mexico, there are many cooperatives supporting farmers in the growing and marketing of coffee. If you are traveling through a coffee growing region, seek out a coopertivo to buy locally grown coffee, often organic and shade-grown. Today, Mexico is one of the largest exporters of organic coffee. Mexico grows the superior tasting Arabica bean, which makes a very good cup of coffee.
Café de Olla
- 3 cups (3/4 l.) boiling water
- 6 tablespoons (90 ml.) coarsely ground coffee
- 2″ (5 cm.) cinnamon stick
- piloncillo for sweetening (optional)
Add ground coffee and cinnamon stick to boiling water and allow to reach a boil again. Remove from heat, slowly stir to settle the grounds, and return to heat to bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and strain into mugs.
In Mexico, coffee is served very sweet in small pottery cups. The traditional sugar for coffee is piloncillo, cones of dark, unrefined sugar with a slight molasses flavor.
I don’t have a metate, a rectangle of volcanic rock upon which grains are ground with a mano, but I wanted to experience the making of coffee in a slightly more traditional way, so I ground the beans using my mortar and pestle. I’m not recommending you do this. A high-quality burr grinder will do the job just fine.
Full disclosure: I have to admit that our usual morning routine is to turn on the espresso machine. This morning, when I handed Russ, my chief taster and food critic, a cup of café de olla, he immediately detected the cinnamon aroma and declined his usual cream, wanting instead to enjoy the full body and cinnamon flavor unmasked.
I’m sorry to say that Puerto Vallarta now has a Starbucks, serving all the usual lattes and cappuccinos. I hope they also serve Café de Olla with cinnamon, and buy from Mexican coffee growers, but I have never been there to find out.
When shopping for coffee beans, look for organic. Many coffee growing countries do not have stringent laws regarding pesticide use. Some of the pesticides used in coffee growing include Endosulfan, which takes years to break down in the environment and is toxic to birds, mammals and fish; Chlorpyrifos (brand name Dursban) linked to birth defects and to low birth rate of birds; and Methyl parathion, banned in Indonesia, restricted in Columbia, but used in some Central American countries. It is very toxic to birds and marine life. I could list more, but it is too dreary to contemplate what so many of us are exposed to, and what we are subjecting the field workers and the environment to, by buying non-organic coffee.
Another designation to look for is “shade-grown”. Coffee plants naturally grow in shade under taller trees. Shade-grown coffee takes longer to mature, but is less prone to competition from weeds and pathogenic infection. Farmers have found that they can increase production by growing coffee in full sun-light. The loss of the upper-growth of trees has decreased bird habitat and biodiversity. Yes, organic and shade-grown coffee costs more, but we can pay now or pay later.
The word “Mascota” on the earthenware mugs in the top photo is the name of a small town in the mountains near us. If you take a trip in that direction, take the San Sebastian turn-off to buy organic coffee grown on the hillsides outside of town. You will be treated to little mugs of hot coffee and be able to see a hillside of coffee plants behind the hacienda.