Vanishing sugar cane mill sparks historic interest

Workers fill the molds to make tapas de dulce, the traditional way of bringing local sugar to market.

Costa Rican historians are mourning the passing of the trapiche, the device used to squeeze the juice from sugar cane.

A recent seminar revealed that at one time in the canton of Alajuela there were 60 trapiches, but now there is none.

The academic Orlando Morales Matamoros directed the discussion at the Universidad Estatal a Distancia with the aim of promoting the rescue of this important piece of the country’s history.

One device is on exhibit at the Museo Nacional. The older devices were powered by oxen or other animals. They would crush the cane and capture the juice that would then be boiled and converted into dulce de tapa, a sugar product that still is called for in many Costa Rican recipes.

Minor Cerdas uses his power trapiche during a 2005 event in Desamparados. Photo: A.M. Costa Rica

According to Morales, as reported by the university, there were 1,664 trapiches or cane mills powered by animals in 1914, 107 powered by hydraulics and eight powered by steam.

Although the traditional view is of a mill powered by oxen, producers here quickly learned that other methods were more efficient, sometimes by three times, said Morales.

Many of the mills were family affairs providing the sweet cakes of dulce de tapa for the neighborhood.

Alajuela was a prime location because of the sugar cane fields. The Mercado Central was said to be a hub.

According to Morales several factors combined to reduce the need for these mills. The first was a change in agriculture in the 1950s that favored coffee production. Then there was the advent of granulated white sugar.

In addition, now much of Costa Rica’s cane becomes guaro, the clear alcohol made by the Fábrica Nacional de Licores.

The cane is hauled to the plant by tractor and flatbed wagons with high side stakes.

There are a few trapiches in various parts of the country, mainly for demonstrations in ecotourism facilities. Smaller versions can be seen at fairs and carnivals. A portable device takes in one piece of cane at a time and produces a juice with a unique flavor for sale. That is a step up from just sucking on a piece of sugar cane.

The original device came from the Old World olive press. Such devices for cane were well established in Costa Rica by the middle of the 18th century, according to a summary of Morales’ talk. There are plans to immortalize the device with an auidiovisual presentation. An Argentine firm markets wine under the Trapiche label, suggesting that the setup also was used for a grape press.

Dulce de tapa still is available in most Costa Rican supermarkets, but its unlikely that oxen had a role.

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