Colombian Expedition: Part 2- Panela, What is this stuff?
Let’s talk about that Panela stuff.
Although in the U.S. and Europe Panela is not widely used, it is actually recognized and used internationally. In South America the sugar goes by Rapadura in Brazil, Panela in Colombia, Chancaca in Peru and Bolivia, Piloncillo in Ecuador, Mexico and Chile. In India and Southeast Asia they call it Jaggery and Gurh. Nepal calls it Veli, Malaysia calls it Gula Merah, while Japan calls it Kokuto (Black Sugar).
Panela is recognized by a rich, full bodied taste, somewhat similar to molasses, but a bit milder. The sugar crystals in panela melt on your tongue, a lot like maple sugar candy. You can melt panela with a bit of water to make a syrup, or grate it and use it like brown sugar. It has always been a delicious sweetener for coffee and tea. Cafe Campesino (literally translates to Peasant's/Farmer’s Coffee) begins as an aguapanela ("Panela water"- water with chunks of panela dissolved in) that is later mixed with roasted, ground coffee that is sifted and served. It is very similar to the panela and coffee mixture of our cubes and is one of the inspiration behind them.
Flavor aside, Panela pervades throughout all of Colombian society. It used in Café Camepsino, the morning beverage of the farmers that roam the Andes mountainside, but it is also the mandatory sweetener for caffeinated nightcaps throughout the bustling cities, even in the high-end restaurants that cater to the more affluent.
In areas of Colombia with extreme poverty, a significant portion of daily caloric intake comes from consumption of Panela, due to its availability and it supplemental benefits. In the 1980's (even today), many cyclists in Colombia grew up in impoverished pueblos (towns), and aguapanela became a companion on the treks up and down the mountains.
When the team competed in the Tour de France in 1980—they were actually questioned for steroids and discriminated against for their use of the unfamiliar sugar Panela. They used it as candy during the race and drank aguapanela in their sport bottles, which caught the attention of American & European cyclist alike. While Western cyclists laughed and recommended power bars and sports drinks, cyclist Patricinio Jimenez, a rider of the famed 80's Colombian team, said that there was no possible way he could conceive of cycling without panela. Of course, there may have been other factors at play ( talent, training, placebo, etc..), but the cyclists swear by it.
Their preference may be due to Panela's structure as a more complex form of carbohydrate than plain sugar. The simpler the carbohydrate, the more quickly the energy released. Panela is digested and absorbed slows and releases energy gradually. This means that the body receives energy for a longer period without the "sugar rush" and blood sugar spikes that are the associated of refined sugars.
But to best understand what sets panela apart from refined sugars you must understand the level of processing it goes through. The first step in processing sugar is to press the sap out of the sugarcane and gently heat it in copper pans until it loosens down into a thick syrup. Panela producers use copper pans near the fire instead of traditional mechanical sugar equipment made of steel, because it often leaves residue of nickel with prolonged heated use.
While the Panela is being heated it is also cleansed using the pulp from the bark of the balsa tree (no chemicals). Yes, this is the same tree that many of you (us included) have used the bark of to build model bridges for grade school science classes (and then smashed to pieces). Interestingly, Balsa eliminates the impurities because the viscous mucilage, the gooey liquid found inside the bark, wraps around the dirt and other contaminants and lifts it to the surface. It is then possible for the impurities to be easily sifted from the rest of the panela. A good indicator of the quality of the panela is the color; lighter colors are the result of fewer impurities and that the panela is not burned. Many unrefined cane sugars that are produced and sold have a much darker brown color rather than an orange-golden color. This indicates that it was not properly cleaned, or that the sugar was burned, or both. Keep an eye for that if you ever plan on buying some.
- The Balsa Tree (it is used to cover coffee plants)
- the bark of the Balsa Wood being pressed for its pulp
- Contaminants rising with the help of the Balsa pulp
- Sifting out the impurities
The thick syrup is then beaten by a large wooden paddle and allowed to periodically rise before repeating the process. The process of whipping the Panela is completed only when it stops rising more than an inch or so. Panela’s processing stops there. The final step to traditional Panela production is the forming of the blocks that are found at supermarkets. This is done by filling molds with the thick Panela syrup and allowing it to set. The Panela in our cubes takes those bricks and breaks it down into fine powder. That is why Panela is usually found in block form, it never reaches the processing required to reach the granulated form.
- Blocks of Panela in a popular supermarket shape
- Panela being whipped
- Panela being spread across the molding
- Evenly distributing the overflowing Panela
- Sticky Panela cooling down (notice the lighter caramel color)
- Blocks of Panela ready to be packaged
Other cane sugar goes through much more of a refining process which continues by taking what we know as panela and continues to boil it until it reaches crystal form. This crystallization process separates the sucrose from the remaining liquid and all the nutrients, refining the cane juice until it is completely separated into refined white sugar, and black molasses. During this crystallization process a slew of chemicals are used to clean and refine sugar. Traditional manufactured sugar includes chemicals like sulfur dioxide, phosphoric acid, bleaching agents and viscosity reducers. Panela’s production process uses none of these.
Panela itself is also recycled and reused in various forms. The (4th generation sugarcane) farmer that grows and processes our Panela prides himself on the effective use of his entire farm; the stalks of sugarcane leftover from being expressed are used for the fire that heats the panela cooking below. The soot leftover from this fire is reused as rich compost for plants growing and the panela that is not at the highest exportable level is mixed into animal feed. Nothing is ever wasted if it can be helped.
- The sugar hills in Ocamonte where our panela is grown.
- A close-up of the sugar cane fields that stretch as far as the eye can see.
- Farmers cutting down the sugar cane.
- Many hills are too steep for machinery, another reason why donkeys are still an integral part of food production along the mountainsides.
- The Panela processing plant with stacks of Panela awaiting.
- The view from the processing plant.
- Closeup of the sugarcane piles.
Look at all that sugarcane!
- Milled Sugarcane that is recycled to be used in maintaining the fire.