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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Gypsy foals frolicking...

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Hey guys,

Since there's a Romani (Gypsy) girl in my upcoming book THE LIGHTING QUEEN, I had an excuse to do fascinating research on this culture.... including my trip to the Irish Rose Farm on the outskirts of my hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado two summers ago.  Charlie Cox showed me his gorgeous authentic vintage Romani vardos (wagons), which I wrote about in another post.


Over the past couple years, my Lil Dude and I have become friends with Charlie and Jan, who we see at the Farmer's Market every Saturday.  (They are such energetic people!  Jan sells fantastical succulents planted in creative upcycled containers like Minions, old baby doll's heads, vintage Star Wars fighter jets, Lego Darth Vader action figures, 1950s Nancy Drew books....)


So we were excited to hear about their two newborn Gypsy foals, and even more excited when they invited us out to see these impossibly adorable creatures.


 

Charlie and Jan actually breed this kind of horse (Irish Cobs), whose ancestors were used in Ireland to pull Gypsy vardos, and who were also well-loved, gentle members of the caravan. Jan and Charlie are an incredible wealth of information about Romani and Traveler culture in Ireland, and true experts on the Gypsy horses and vardos and dog that they treasure.


These horses are gorgeous and sweet, with distinct black and white patterning and elegant tufts of hair around their ankles. I love their luxurious manes and tails so much!


They lead extremely happy lives on the farm, staying for many months with their mothers, wandering the huge fields with a backdrop of the Rocky Mountains, getting lots of love from Jan and Charlie and their Gypsy dog, Finn.  In Ireland, caravans often included this breed of dog who, like the horses, also were a useful, gentle, and well-loved part of the family.  They are expert hunters, and will go off on their own to fetch rabbits or other small animals to have for dinner. (Finn has proudly brought home rabbits and squirrels.)


So, more about these beautiful foals: The older of the two-- about three weeks old in these photos-- is named Skellig Michael (Skeilig Mhichil in Irish), which is also a rocky island in Ireland.  The 2-week-old girl is named Saoirse (pronounced Searrrsha), which means "freedom" in the Irish language, and has cool political/historical significance in Ireland.

 

Once the babies warmed up to Lil Dude, they enjoyed having him scratch their rump.


I honestly knew very little about horses before our trip to the farm.  The extent of my knowledge was what I'd gleaned from Lil Dude's easy reader books on the topic. ;-)


It's incredible to me that within a few hours of birth, the foals are already walking around... and within a few weeks they're already munching on grasses to supplement their mother's milk.  Supposedly Gypsy mare's milk is incredibly nutrient-rich and makes these foals grow heartier and faster than other horse breeds.


The mothers were so sweet with their babies, but generously let us close enough to touch them. We felt so fortunate!


Before I sign off, I'll give you a quick update on THE LIGHTNING QUEEN.  It's available for preorder now, and will be released on Oct. 27, 2015 in hardcover, ebook... *and audiobook*! So happy about this!


You can read more about the book here and get links to book club and educators' guides.


And if you're on Goodreads, you can add it to your "want-to-read" list here.  Review copies are out in the world now, and I've gotten a bunch of awesome early reviews from a group of elementary school kids in Half Moon Bay, CA! I'll share those blurbs with you in a post soon....


Hope you're having an enchanting summer! 

xo,
Laura

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Just another day of research... at the chocolate shop!

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Hey all,

So I've had the grueling task of researching the goings-ons of a chocolate shop ....

 

I spent a glorious morning at Nuance on Pine Street in Old Town, Fort Collins.  One of the settings in my novel-in-progress is a chocolate shop, and I felt the need to spend some quality time inside of one.  The owners are Alix and Toby, a married couple who put their hearts into running this business.  I was so grateful to Toby, who took time out of his morning (2 and a 1/2 hours!) to enthusiastically answer my many interview questions.



Toby and Alix became enchanted with chocolate-making after a trip to Costa Rica. They started making it in their home kitchen, and soon their equipment had taken over....  Their hobby bloomed into something bigger, and they decided to open a gorgeous chocolate shop!



I thought I'd give you a taste of what I learned...

The cacao pods grow on the tree trunks!

The organically-grown cacao pods are harvested at one of the small-scale, environmentally and socially respectful co-ops that they work with in Latin America or Africa. Alix and Toby try to cut out as many middlemen as possible, so that the maximum amount of money possible can go directly to the community of growers.  The plantations aren't necessarily formal rectangles of land-- they can be in the middle of the jungle, which is best because the cacao plants love a good tree canopy.


There, onsite, people crack open the nerf-football sized pod and take out the beans coated with goopy stuff (mucilage) and let them sit for a few days, covered in leaves and fermenting.

 
This fermentation stage is essential to developing the chocolate's complex flavors and notes.

 

 Then, after it's spread out and dried in the sunshine, the cacao is shipped in burlap or plastic or hemp sacks by boat and then by truck to Nuance, where it's roasted in Toby and Alix's own little chocolate factory here in Old Town, Fort Collins.


The beans are roasted at between 240 and 350 degrees Farenheight for about 15 to 40 minutes, in small batches.  Some people use convection ovens or coffee roasters, but Nuance has their own top-secret roasting technique.... so mysterious!

Toby and Alix love experimenting with different techniques and flavors... an intriguing mix of art and science.


Machines crack the cacao beans and vacuum and winnow off the husks.  So you get these cute little cacao nibs....


The cacao is then ground into chocolate that has the consistency of peanut butter.  This is called chocolate liquor or cocoa mass, and it's not alcoholic, but it is thick and greasy.  With exposure to air, it turns into hard chocolate chunks.  This process releases aromatic and volatile compounds. 


Next it goes into the melanger machine.  Melanger is French for "mix."  It's a big stainless steel drum, whose base and wheels are granite.  For 80 hours, the stone grinds, granite against granite, mixing the cocoa mass with sugar.  There's a noisy rumble as the machines mix, four of them mixing 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The goal is to get the particle size to 20 microns or less so that your tongue feels only a super-smooth texture.  (Note that this is not melting with heat, but actual grinding.)  In this stage the volatile acids and compounds are blown off and dissipate with exposure to air.
 
If the chocolate is destined to become milk chocolate, they'll add high-quality whole fat dried milk to the melanger.



Refining is the process of reducing the particle size, and conching is the process of releasing volatile compounds by stirring.  So by the time the mixing is done, the sharp acidity is reduced and the flavor is more mellow.

You're left with giant chunks of chocolate, which are part of the "geology phase" of chocolate making.  You can see the mottling and striated patterns in the chocolate chunk, a result of the "blooming" process.  This happens because the cocoa butter parts of the chocolate crystallize at room temperature.


Then they temper the chocolate-- this is a process of controlled melting and cooling to get the structure to Beta 5, which means the cocoa butter is smoothly integrated.

To make white chocolate, they use the cocoa butter with high quality Madagascar vanilla and whole fat dried milk.


We also talked quite a bit about the horrible chemical processes that big chocolate companies use in making chocolate.  It's awful, and I won't get into it here, but trust me, what the giant, soul-less businesses do to chocolate is an atrocity, and once you learn about it, you'll never want to eat cheapo, mass-produced chocolate again! Single source, bean to bar chocolate is definitely the way to go, though there are just a handful of small companies in the U.S. that produce chocolate this way. (I might tell you about all that in another post, if you're curious...)

So after Toby and Alix and their several employees make the chocolate, they form it into bars, from different countries, with different concentrations of cacao, and different cultivars of cacao (forestero, criollo, or trinitario)...

 

They also use some of the chocolate for hand-rolled truffles.  They have fun inventing different truffle recipes, using local and artisanal ingredients from the Fort Collins area.



I was thrilled when Toby offered me this beautiful flight of chocolate after our interview!

He instructed me to eat a piece of chocolate (all in a particular order designed to maximize the tasting experience.)  I was supposed to chew it a little, but also let it melt in my mouth and move it around to different parts of my mouth.  After I finished each chocolate sample, I drank some water and chewed a water cracker.  This process was not only delicious, and endorphin-releasing, but lots of fun!


I loved reading Toby's descriptions of each kind of chocolate and seeing if I could notice those flavors in the chocolate as I tasted.  Because I love words, especially words describing taste, I'll share with you some terms used to evoke chocolate flavors:  floral, fruity, nutty, metallic, earthy, woody, vanilla, oaky, coffee, strawberries, acidity/brightness, herbal, minty, astringent, tobacco...

I tasted chocolate made with beans from Ghana (rich, deep, notes of vanilla, cherries, and honey), Ecuador (earthy, mysterious, subtle), Nicaragua (smooth and creamy with notes of tobacco leaf, nuts, molasses), Venezuela (beautifully balanced, notes of cashews and dairy cream), and Madagascar (fascinating, sophisticated layers of flavor like plum and apricot.)  Not surprisingly, Toby  has a creative writing background. :-)


Also not surprisingly, he has a design background.... which leads me to the decor of Nuance... gorgeous! Their retail space is owned by my dear creator friend Les Sunde, who put a lot of effort into making it architecturally beautiful, and then, Toby and Alix beautified it further...


I really love what they did with this antique skylight, to filter the bright sunlight....


And that wraps up my blissful morning of chocolate research! Thanks for coming by...

xo,
Laura




Monday, May 4, 2015

The AMAZON!!! (Part 5-- Waterfall Hike and Limpia)

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Pegonka and me at the magical waterfall

Hello again!

So, this post will wrap up the Ecuadorian Amazon portion of my trip! After spending a few days at the Huaorani Ecolodge, we packed up our stuff and headed downstream by dugout canoe on the Shiripuno River.  There we camped for a night before leaving the jungle.

 

It was so peaceful floating down the river...


Our lodging situation was great-- tents to keep out the bugs, a nice platform and roof... and just down the hill were some showers and bathroom stalls... luxurious camping!

Here I am with Pegonka, my fantastic guide (with the yellow boots).  On the other side is cute little Fernanda and her mother, Inez, both of whom I really loved spending time with.


And here's Inez's youngest daughter, sweet little Vicky...



They taught me to weave bracelets with strands of palm...


I came home with lots of these beautiful bracelets, naturally colored with plant dyes from the jungle.  Here I'm showing off one on my wrist that Inez made for me...

*I still have achiote on my face from earlier that day... it's just smeared with sweat at this point!*

This is Inez's daughter with her adorable baby...

 

From the campsite, we took a gorgeous hike to a waterfall, along a ridge and down a steep canyon into a magical valley.

Pegonka plucked a plant on the way that we all used later as a natural shampoo in the pool beneath the waterfall. When you broke open the stalk, there was a gooey, foamy substance inside that lathered up nicely...


We stopped to relax in a natural vine hammock along the way.  Pegonka talked about how when he was a kid, he and his friends would swing on vines like this across the valley...

As he told me about his childhood shooting blowguns and climbing trees and swinging on vines, I kept thinking about Lil Dude and his 7-year-old classmates sitting all day at desks and staring at worksheets and whiteboards except for a few brief outdoor recesses... and honestly, it made me kind of sad.  I've observed that his natural inclination as a 7-year-old boy is to swing, run, climb, throw stuff, and pretend to shoot stuff.  Of course, I think education of children is important... I just wish that our education model involved more active interaction with the natural world.

Pegonka didn't start school until he was a young teen, so his childhood was blissfully free...  (Waorani kids nowadays in his community do start school at a younger age-- and then after school they swing and climb and shoot in the jungle.)


So relaxing....


With amazingly keen eyes, Pegonka spotted some fruit in the treetops and climbed up several stories to retrieve it.  He tossed it down to us, far below.


In the first post I did, I showed pics of him climbing using a woven ring of vines to help him climb... but he only needs that when he's climbing while carrying his blowgun and spear.  With his hands totally free, he doesn't need any extra help.  He said that by the time kids are 7 or 8, they've mastered the skill of climbing trees that are over a hundred feet high.  (My Lil Dude would definitely prefer mastery of tall-tree-climbing over mastery of double-digit-addition any day.)


I have no idea what the name of this fruit is in English... or even if an English name exists for it... but it had large seeds with very tart flesh around them that you sucked on.


We descended this steep staircase into the valley.  Pegonka said that before they built the stairs (for tourists like me, mainly), you had to use ropes or vines to get to the bottom.


And behold!  A magical piece of paradise awaited us!


After Pegonka did a quick caiman check with a stick (no caimans that he could find), we entered the water-- me, Pegonka, and Javier (the other awesome guide).  At first I was a little squeamish about where I stepped, worried it could be straight into the jaws of an annoyed caiman, but soon I forgot about that...

Pegonka and Javier showed me how to do a limpia-- a spiritual cleaning-- beneath the cascade.  It felt amazing-- so intense with the pounding water and mist.  The whole time, the sunlight was sparkling and bright blue morphos were fluttering around... and by the end of it, yes, my spirit felt gleaming new. :-)  

Pegonka told me that people-- especially shamans-- get power from waterfalls.  I asked him about other things considered sacred and powerful in his culture, his answer was jaguars (which had already come up in earlier conversations, in fact.)  When people die, their spirits become jaguars or other wild cats, and sometimes after a loved one dies, you might spot them in their feline form.

Afterward, we ascended the staircase, our spirits clean and soaring....


The last day, we headed downstream toward a road at the jungle's edge, where we would be picked up by a driver in an SUV.  I savored my last hours in the forest...

Here's Pedro, shielding his wife, Elizabeth, and their baby from the sun with a palm leaf in the canoe...


I sat next to Inez for these last hours in the canoe, and we had fascinating conversation about the past few decades of Waorani history in this territory.  I won't get into all the nitty gritty details here (you can read the book ironically titled SAVAGES if you're interested), but suffice to say that the various cultural groups in this area have a gory history of spearing each other on sight.  In the past several decades, a tentative peace has been reached, and there has been some intermarriage.  Inez has a Quichua husband, for example.  (Note that culturally, the Amazonian Quichua are very different from the Andean Quichua in my book THE QUEEN OF WATER.)

She told me that when she was a little girl, she went to school for just a couple years.  She had to swim in the river for an hour to get there, while holding her notebook over her head with one hand to keep it dry.  If it got wet, the teacher would hit her.  In third grade, she quit school because it was too hard to keep that darn notebook dry and she was sick of the teacher hitting her.


It was sad to leave the rain forest... I felt like we were leaving a piece of heaven.  Maybe I would've felt differently if it had been really rainy (it was sunny nearly the whole time-- this was in late Feb, just before the beginning of rainy season)... or if the bugs had bugged me (but that permithrin spray Ian put on my clothes back in Colorado made all bugs stay away from me.)  The whole trip felt so comfortable and natural... and I want to go back!!!

It was devastating to see the oil drilling operations at the edge of the jungle.  The documentary CRUDE shows all the horrible cultural and environmental and health consequences of these operations.  And unfortunately, President Correa has recently sold oil drilling rights in an enormous tract of territory also in the Yasuni National Park.  Heart-breaking, but it's prompted me do my own little part to try to support the indigenous groups in their effort to protect their land. 


If you missed my other posts about my trip to the Amazon, you can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here.  And stay tuned for one more Ecuador post, this next one in the Andes, with my friend and co-author Maria Virginia Farinango in her home town of Otavalo. Thanks for coming by!

xo,
Laura