Panela: Artisanal craft of Colombia
MASSACHUSETTS—Have you ever wondered how your furniture, clothes, or even your dish plates were made? Many items we use in our daily lives took trial and error to make. In different parts of the world, families and their following generations take on the role of crafting high-quality materials that are symbolic to their culture, this is known as artisanal craftsmanship.
Artisanal craftsmanship has many benefits, the high-quality materials are healthier for you and the planet since the materials used are locally sourced, supporting the local ecology, and avoiding invasive species! You are supporting small businesses, and you are taking part in preserving the local culture, since such craftsmanship has been developed over centuries by ancestral knowledge and expertise.
As a first-generation Cuban-Colombian American, I try to connect to my culture as much as possible. I find myself appreciating the little things, like listening to my mother’s stories of her life in Colombia, vividly imagining the lake and mountains that surrounded her daily life. She says the smell of mint and wood burning “smells like Colombia.”
From sculpting arepas in the kitchen and using panela, a type of sugar present in most Colombian households, to mix with lemon and water, it all brings me closer to my Colombian heritage.
In Colombia, artisanal craftsmanship can be found from mochilas, which are bags that have originated and are made by various indigenous groups, such as the Wayuu, Kogui, Wiwa, Kankuamo. To the sombrero vueltario, which translates to ‘turned hat’. Made out of caña flecha, a native species of cane. Its texture allows the fibers to be intricately woven together, creating a traditional art form often seen in cumbia dances.
The intricate process of making panela is what makes the sugar a traditional craft.
Panela is processed through three critical stages. Yet other factors such as the weather conditions, soil health and amplitude may be out of the farmers hands and may affect the characteristics of panela throughout its harvest. In turn making the panela either appear darker or lighter in color, and affecting its aromatics qualities and sugar concentration.
The farmers first harvest the sugarcane, placing the stocks on a mule, where they then transport it to a local trapiche, a mill used to extract the juice from the sugarcane. Sugarcane was brought from the Spanish to Colombia, yet the native plants that contribute to panela illustrate a point of Colombian history that shows the mix of cultures taking part in carving out the country’s culture we know today.
Secondly, the juice is then strained to separate the juice from its pulp and poured into a pot where the pulp and juice are separated, boiled and a native plant is added to form a thick constancy. This can be either el guasimo (West Indian Elm Guazuma Ulmifolia) or cadillo (burs) depending on the region. It is then boiled to 70 to 80 degrees celsius, separating the impurities from the batter. Once ready, the evaporated cane juice is poured into another container, where it is stirred to thicken further to pour into molds.
After 15 minutes, the molds are lifted, and the blocks of panela are left to cool down for an additional 10 minutes. Once ready, they are then packed for distribution.
To know the way panela is made, where and why it’s made, are questions that bring us closer to understanding the history and culture of Colombia and Latin America. Taking us a step further to preserving our culture. Artisanal craftsmanship tells the stories of those before us.The trial and error so many had to go through so that we can enjoy the specialties of Colombia —allowing us to appreciate our culture and history.
About the writer:
Angelique Hechavarria resides in Massachusetts, where she is a senior in high school. She is interested in all areas of STEM, biology in particular. Growing up in a Cuban and Colombian household, she loves learning about the history and culture of Latin America. With this, she also loves learning about and conserving artisanal craftsmanship from all over the world. Through her AP Literature and Composition course, she was fascinated by the art of literature, in which she participated in the poetry out loud competition where she made it to regionals. Through her new position in Latinitas, she hopes to highlight these interests and more to the Latinx community.
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