It is such a simple word, yet in Mexico, incredibly important, because seemingly almost everyone in this great country drinks coffee.
When I first started visiting Mexico over 20 years ago I was not a big coffee drinker. Often siting around a table in someone’s house, coffee would be served and I was left to ask for water. It was as if I wasn’t part of the club since I didn’t drink. Then one cold January night everything changed.
I was in Baja California in a pueblo called La Misión, north of Ensenada. It had been raining, it was cold and the family with whom I was staying had left for the evening. That meant I was on my own for dinner. I headed over to a little place called La Fonda, owned and managed back then by a Ukranian-Canadian-American immigrant named Dimitri Orest, whom I had come to know from my many trips to this region.
At the end of a great dinner, Dimitri asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee. Since it was so cold, I figured it would warm me up. When I said yes, he asked if I wanted the Mexican coffee. “Claro” I said, thinking, I am in Mexico, of course I’d want Mexican coffee.
When he came back I was given what could only be described as some elixer of the gods. Piping hot, strong, smothered in whipped cream and complete with a kick, this, I thought, was coffee.
Unfortunately, never having had much coffee before, I had no idea that this wonderful concoction was loaded with Kahlua and probably tequila. Surely that explains why in my early days of drinking coffee, it never tasted quite as good as it did that cold night in Baja.
Coffee has a rich tradition in Mexico, especially given it is one of the largest coffee producing countries in the world. The states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz are all large coffee producers, but by no means the only places where you can find richness worth a second cup. Even states like Nayarit and Jalisco, much more famous for tequila, have rich coffee growing traditions.
What’s interesting is that quality coffee for the masses is only a recent tradition in Mexico. While today you can find a good cup of coffee in almost every city, it was not always so. For years, a spoonful of Nescafe Clasico in a styrofoam cup was what passed for coffee in most homes and many restaurants.
That lack of quality might help explain the popularity of Café de Olla, that sweet cinnamon, brown sugar laced coffee that seems to be cooking all day in some homes. Perhaps it developed as a way to mask how bad the early iterations of instant coffee were. Nowadays you can get café de olla in many restaurants, but it’s generally only average. Maybe that’s because they don’t use the traditional clay pots favored in the mountains and rural areas. Maybe it’s because in some areas it just tastes better in a bowl. Whatever the reason, there is something special, or magical about receiving a cup of coffee from a friend, knowing she has been watching it on her stove for hours.
I spend many of my days in Oaxaca south of town working on a sustainable-agriculture ranch, and each day before I get up, my friends wife Estela is in the kitchen making a new batch. You can smell the spices and the piloncillo percolating through the coffee and the room. Just knowing there is always a great cup of café de olla close by on the stove, makes each day better.
It’s an easy drink to make, and if you’ve never tried it, a great twist on the classic cup of coffee. Here’s an easy recipe from Chef Pati Jinich, of Pati’s Mexican Table, seen regularly on your local PBS station. As always when cooking, you can, and should adjust these portions a little each time until you are able to make it your own!
Café de Olla, from Pati Jinich of Pati’s Mexican Table
6 cups water
6 tbsp coarsely ground dark roasted coffee
4 oz piloncillo (can substitute for brown sugar)
1 cinnamon stick
Heat the water in a pot over medium heat (using a clay pot is the traditional way to prepare it and it gives it a very unique flavor, but it isn’t necessary). When the water comes to a boil, lower the heat and add the coffee, piloncillo, and a cinnamon stick.
Simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring until the piloncillo dissolves. Remove from the heat, let it stand covered for 5 to 10 minutes and strain before serving. Alternatively, you may remove the cinnamon and use a French press to strain the coffee as well.
[All media used from Pati’s Mexican Table is by permission of Chef Pati Jinich]