The first time we came across panela was a few years ago when we first visited Colombia. It is very similar to jaggery in India, as it is made from evaporated sugar cane juice and is not refined in the process. Therefore it is considered to have better health benefits because it retains the nutrients (e.g. minerals, vitamins, amino acids) in the sugar cane. It is often used to sweeten hot chocolate and coffee in Colombia. This year we created our first caramel-based chocolate using panela – and we named it Bogotá as we captured several flavours representing Colombia in this chocolate: dark chocolate, coffee and panela.
In Colombia, the more common table (white) sugar usually comes from large sugar cane plantations in the southwestern part of the country, and are run by large companies; while panela is usually produced by small families and farmers who own and run their own sugar cane farms (usually 2-3 hectares per family). It is estimated that there are about 350,000 families producing panela in Colombia.
The process of making panela is:
- The sugar cane is cut by hand and taken to the trapiche (sugar mill)
- The juice is extracted by crushing the sugar cane
- The juice then goes through the first filter to remove most of the impurities
- The juice is then heated to a temperature of 90C, and further impurities are removed
- Through the evaporation process and further heating up to 120C, the sugar cane juice becomes more concentrated.
- When the juice is dehydrated and reaches the maximum concentration level, the concentrated juice (a liquid version of panela) is then stirred vigorously by hand until it gets pulverised.
- The panela is then put through a sieve so that all the particles are of a similar size, and then it is milled to make the particles even finer. Then it is either put into bags or pressed into “cake” or block form, before being sold.
Traditionally the farmers would make the panela manually in their small holdings (picture shows a typical panela production area in a small farm), and then sell them in the local markets. It is hard work working in an environment surrounded by heat and evaporating cane juice, in a hot climate. The issues include the variability of quality and lack of quality control (since the knowledge of panela-making is often passed down through the families), and the farmers may end up selling the panela at a loss in the local markets, due to the fact that the price they can command in the market may be less than the cost of growing the sugar cane and making the panela at their farms. This is where the farmers need help and support.
One of the initiatives in Colombia is to improve the method of panela production, by having the farmers growing and supplying the sugar cane to a local trapiche, and then the trapiche would produce the panela in a controlled environment, using more modern equipment to extract and evaporate the cane juice.
This ensures that the quality of the panela becomes more uniform (e.g. you don't get panela that may not have been evaporated sufficiently, or burnt due to prolonged heat beyond evaporation), and the farmers can concentrate on the growing of the sugar cane but not have to deal with the nuances of panela production. The farmers are guaranteed a certain price per kg of sugar cane sold to the trapiche.
For more information about panela and the trapiche that we visited, watch this video.
Having seen the production first hand in Colombia, we feel that this is a promising method to improve the production/quality of panela and also the livelihood of the small sugar cane farmers and their families.