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anela is a sweetener produced from sugar cane through a process of evaporation. Colombia is the second major producer of panela in the world, however most of the production is destined for local consumption. There are crops of sugar cane all over the country so the production of panela is very much spread out. Traditionally, it has been considered as the sweetener of the campesino, and it is widely consumed by the poorer people in the country; as it is usually overlooked by wealthier consumers who prefer white refined sugar, honey or synthetic sweeteners.
Around Yolombó, there are many trapiches where panela is produced; many of them rely on manual labor and use traditional methods of production. In these parts, panela production is sort of a community affair that is ruled by agreements that go a long way back in time and that are meant to involve all parts in the production of panela and to work towards the same goals. For example, the people who actually own the land give some plots to campesinos so that they grow sugar cane for panela production; so the campesinos own the crops on that land, but only as long as they grow sugar cane, they would not be allowed to grow anything else on it. It is not an easy system to maintain, but it has been in place for many years and people are used to working like that. Also, the campesino that harvests the crops also works in their processing into panela; after all their hard labor in growing, harvesting and processing they manage to get the equivalent to the minimum wage to sustain their families.
When the cane is ready to be harvested, it’s cut and loaded onto the mules. These animals are incredible workers, they can carry a load of about 3 times their body weight and walk the steep trails in the hills. The mules then bring the canes to the trapiche, the actual place where the production is done, where they are weighted and a record is kept; which helps to later distribute the earnings among the workers. After the mules finish their work day, they are washed and fed; but as soon as they are clean they love to get down on the mud, so they usually look pretty dirty.
The actual process of turning cane into panela starts with the cane being fed into the trapiche, a machine that crushes it and extracts as much juice as possible. The trapiche in Guanlanday is new, when we were there it had barely been a week since they installed it and they were quite happy with it, since it gets about 30% more juice than the old one; plus it crushes the cane into smaller bits that work better in the oven. For what is left of the cane is put aside and it gets slowly fed into the oven that heats the pails where the filtration of the cane juice takes place. The foam that comes out of the first filtration is used to feed the mules, at Trapiche Gualanday everything gets reutilized in panela manufacturing; there are simply no residues. After the cane juice is passed from one hot pail on to another until it gets to a point where is pure and is ready to go into the molds, where it’s left for a few minutes until it’s hard enough. Finally it’s packed and ready to bring to the store. Panela has its own distinctive taste, a bit more subtle than sugar. Also, panela has a higher nutritional value than sugar since it’s rich in calcium and potasium; while most nutrients in white sugar are stripped away in the efforts to refine it.
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