It was another time. A different time. A time well before the tormenting virus; though, still so close I can reach back through the fog of our recent past and feel its heat... Almost. The residual sweet-chemical smell of sunscreen on long-unused beach towels is real and I’m again boarding the hopscotch flight through Mexico City to Puerto Escondido where coffee is king and the legend of Steven Smith is just set to begin.
I’m here for the coffee. Puerto Escondido, located on Mexico’s deep south-west coast, close to but not quite Guatemala, is home to the popular Finca Las Nieves. Finca Las Nieves has pioneered biodynamic coffee farming and has been educating coffee growers throughout Central and South America for years. That’s why I’m here. I’m not here for the mezcal and I’m not here to meet Steven in all his tanned-to-the-bone, rolly-weed smoking glory.
Some combination of mezcal, tobacco and sunshine administered daily over a long, long time, has a way of preserving people, fixing them in time.
The Finca Las Nieves coffee plantation sits in a surprisingly frigid micro-climate in the Sierra Madre del Sur, high above Puerto Escondido. Here they grow both Bourbon and Typica varieties of the Arabica coffee family. In 2012 the region was decimated by coffee leaf rust. A fungus that attacks the luscious green leaves of coffee bushes, slowly killing the bush itself. Along with leaf rust came the Cartels. Many plantation owners were strongarmed into tearing out their coffee and planting marijuana. But not Finca Las Nieves.
Accommodation booked on a whim, I enter the large kitchen of the lovely terracotta home and walk straight into Steven, owner of Casa Amarilla, sipping mezcal from a five-gallon glass jug. Acquaintances are made, mezcal shared and minutes later we’re heading north to a far-flung beach for an impromptu boozy seafood lunch.
Steven, a Bush-era American expat, is deep into his sixties though he could be any age. Some combination of mezcal, tobacco and sunshine administered daily over a long, long time, has a way of preserving some people, fixing them in time. Originally from Portland, Steven owned a bike shop before “escaping” to Puerto Escondido to peddle high-quality, locally distilled mezcal to the unsuspecting guests of Casa Amarilla.
Early the next morning I’m swept up by Felix and driven deep into the jungle for a coffee plantation tour at Finca Las Nieves. Born and raised in Puerto Escondido, Felix, tour guide, musician and all-round nice guy, tells me that tourists don’t come to the jungle alone. This inland mountainous area, green, lush and alive with bird-song is still dominated by the Cartels. While it is improving, mostly as a result of controlling coffee leaf rust, Gringos like me are still likely to take a wrong turn, stumble into a heavily guarded marijuana grow-op and end up in serious trouble.
Milk, or more accurately whey protein from milk, is helping to save the coffee industry in Puerto Escondido and much of Central America from leaf rust. Finca Las Nieves perfected the technique of fermenting whey protein, before spraying it directly onto the coffee bush. Word of their success spread and soon they were teaching their neighbours how to rid the dreaded rust.
At Casa Amarilla, I dustily wake the next morning to discover a whole dead pig waiting on the kitchen table. Steven, shirt bloodied, strong black coffee in one hand, ever-present hand-rolled cigarette in the other, informs me that during the previous evening I’d mentioned, that my Dad was a butcher and that I was very comfortable dismantling an entire pig for a dinner party the following evening. So, here was my pig, party starts at 6 o’clock. I should have known better than drinking mezcal with a professional.
As soon as I laid eyes on the black medieval torture device located in a close corner of Casa Amarilla’s walled courtyard I was intrigued. The custom-welded, Argentine barbeque is a fire-breathing thing of beauty. Amateur-hour at the butchery complete, Steven eagerly set to cranking chains on the gruesome machine and flipping primal-cuts.
The delicious deed was finally done. My goose, well pork, was cooked, guests arrived and the feast began. A five-gallon glass jug of mezcal close to hand. And I thought I was only here for the coffee.