Overland miles: 4368 Tacocount: 68 Days without sodas: 11
If you were to sum up traditional Nicaraguan flavours in three words, they would probably include ‘homely’ and ‘comforting’. A country where the sweet element of a dish is provided by crisp slices of plantain (maybe some fried onions), the sour by pickled cabbage, and the hot by a standard issue chilli salsa, all set against a solid and dependable backlayer of rice and beans (of which more later), might – at first bite – seem like the land that taste forgot.
But this would be to ignore some of the most majestic tastes that Nicaragua produces in abundance, from its sun-drenched and fertile Caribbean fields. I am talking here about their crops of sugar cane, which when fermented, distilled and aged makes the finest rum in the world. And their cacao plantations, from which they derive their rich, earthy dark chocolate. Not to mention their fields of tobacco (Nicaraguan cigars are right up there with Cuban ones). We were sufficiently intrigued by the first two of these products that we decided to investigate them more closely. We’ll look at Nicaragua’s chocolate production in a later post.
Whilst we were staying in the colonial city of Leon, we took the opportunity to visit the rum bodegas and barreling plant of Compañía Licorera de Nicaragua, which has been making and distributing Flor de Caña (‘sugarcane flower’) since 1937. A charming guide in a rakishly angled Panama invited us to clamber aboard a train not dissimilar to the dilapidated mine trains we encountered in Santa Rosalia. These haulage trains carried the tons of sugar cane from nearby Chichigalpa to the processing plant outside Leon, to turn it into buttery-rich molasses, the base product for rum’s fertilisation process.
From there we were whisked from station to station in one of those cute tourist trains. We were first treated to an extremely slick presentation covering the family-owned company’s five generations of history (the original liquor they produced since the end of the nineteenth century was merely a bi-product of the unused sugar cane which was given as a thank you to their employees at the harvest’s end). The film ensured that we were fully briefed on Flor de Caña‘s Corporate Social Responsibility strategy, numerous awards and expansion plans. Penetration of the US market was helpfully demonstrated by a girl in a bikini with a surfboard admiring a hunk wearing a branded T-shirt. Thirty minutes later, our minds ingrained with images of grateful school teachers emotionally thanking the company for investing in their school’s baseball pitch, we were able to taste the product itself.
Flor de Caña produces several differently aged rums – from an ‘Extra Lite’ four year product (white, purely for mixing), all the way up to 18 years (strictly on the rocks, preferably in a leather chair). We were shown how the barrels were constructed before being stored in aircraft hanger-sized bodegas, our guide explaining that they can carry on slow-ageing the liquor right up until 25 years – but no longer, because the barrels start to decompose. The key thing, we were told repeatedly, is that they never, never, blend the contents of differently aged barrels, as is the case for ‘single malt’ whisky production. They claim this is what gives their product that distinctive, refined flavour premium rum aficionados crave. [Editor’s note: PFB would like to stress its complete neutrality when it comes to choosing your poison, and if other rum brands would like to send us a comparative sample of their wares, please contact us.]
The tasting highlighted the company’s evident passion for this slow-ageing process, as they chose to intoriduce us to their Centenario (‘Centenary’ – aged 18 years) variety. I felt that if they had – like most wine bodegas – let us sample rums from the spectrum, from the Extra Lite through the Gran Reserva (‘Special Reserve’ – aged seven years) to finish with the Centenario stuff, we would have been able to appreciate the difference more. Perhaps we would also have known what to buy in the barrel-shaped tourist centre at the end: the price point of the 18 year old is eye-wateringly high. But as instructed we started to swirl the amber liquid around the large brandy style glass, then savoured its honeyed raisin aroma and finally took a sip – it was evident we were tasting a labour of love. Afterwards we inspected the bodega that stored all their older rums, our senses completely overwhelmed. You could get nicely toasted just standing around a few minutes.
I didn’t buy a bottle at the end of the tour, in case you’re wandering; I’m not a complete sap. But I had determined quite early on that I was a Special Reserve man, and later on during our time in Nicaragua we found a neatly packaged bottle of the aged seven year product in a pulperia (convenience store) selling for roughly half the price. But before we left Leon, I felt it was only right to seek out one more glass of that 18 años, and treat myself to a shot over ice (roughly £1.25). It was the perfect way to toast our last night in a city – like its rum – steeped in history.