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guarapo juice

“I just arrived this morning to Miami and I am looking forward to a lot of things, but I can’t wait to have Florida orange juice actually in Florida”, so said my Midwestern guest at the beginning of my Little Havana Tour.

“Yes we have delicious orange juice, but on today’s tour you are going to try something even more authentic than a glass of Florida sunshine. Your friends back home may have had orange juice before, but they’ve probably never had the kind of juice you will experience today. That stop will be a surprise, that’s all I’ll say for now .” And off we went.

Midway through our 2 1/2-hour journey, it’s time for our visit to Los Pinerenos Fruiteria, indisputably the most genuine market in the neighborhood for indulging in cool, tropical juices. As we enter the breezy open-air space, my guest, Miss Citrus wanders from our small group for a quick look around. A few minutes later a puzzled look falls upon her face.

“Where is the machine that presses oranges?”, she says with furrowed brow. “If this is where fresh drinks are to be found, surely this place doesn’t serve bottled orange juice.”

It’s time to break the mystery of our visit as I gather the group around the cozy, well-worn front counter with an introduction to the friendly owners since 1968, the Hernandez family. Barely reaching past the wood ledge, the sweet-faced, tiny matriarch of the clan, Guillermina, stands in contrast to her at least one foot taller adult son Angel Jr. as they warmly greet the group.

“You come to Little Havana for something real. And there is nothing more real than guarapo juice”, Angel exclaims with a broad smile, as he pulls long rods of fresh pale green-colored sugar cane from the refrigerator to hand to the workhorse of the family-his mama. With the secrecy cracked as to what we are about to enjoy, my orange juice-loving visitor smiles right back at him in anticipation of trying something brand new. Guillermina, a small but mighty woman in her 80’s is about to perform “juice theatre” by pressing sugar cane into a delicious liquid treat.

I tell the group that the sugarcane is considered the mother of Cuba and “she” has given birth to all that is sacred in the Cuban culinary world. For without sugar cane, we wouldn’t have cafe cubano, the most incredible sugared coffee on the planet; or rum, the spirit that is a core part of Cuba’s identity, made from fermented sugarcane; or the wide variety of calories-can-go-to-hell Cuban pastries that leaves sugar crumbs for days on carb-loving lips. Here at Los Pinerenos, we are about to witness the most uncomplicated and completely unrefined by product of this tall fibrous stalk- the sweet guarapo juice.

With powerful bicep strength ( Senora Hernandez has single-handedly invented the way to get muscular arms sans a traditional dumbbell workout-learn to press sugarcane), our strong lady of the house begins the “show” by intensely shoving heavy, thick sticks of just-delivered sugarcane into a stainless steel and rather clunky-looking contraption called a trapiche or sugar cane press. The machine literally smashes the canes into flaccid strings of bone-dry pulp. As her eyes remain seriously fixated on the process, Miss Citrus says she has long forgotten her desire for something orangish as the gorgeous honeydew-colored juice drips from the trapiche into a large metal pitcher. From there, Guillermina deftly pours the pretty potion, on the rocks, into individual glasses and the homey tray is handed off to Angel who finishes his visit with us wishing all a hearty salut.

There is a little problem with guarapo juice, but it’s actually a lovely conundrum to have. The “defect” of this cool elixir is that it cannot be conserved for long, and that means minutes. This refreshing restorative is so sensitive to light and air that with one stroke of the clock hand, the alluring bright, verdant tint transforms quickly into an unappetizing murky, dark hue. So, we have to happily extend our visit in this lovely space for just a bit longer so everyone can finish to the last juicy drop. This gives us enough time to peruse and discuss the huge array of tropical fruits and vegetables for sale that are heaped into old wooden boxes throughout the store while we trace the origins of guarapo. It’s hard to pinpoint its exact beginnings, but one thought is during the 19th century a Cuban named Esteban Pichardo recorded the word guarapo and defined it as a broth made from sugarcane juice extracted under pressure. It was believed to be the choice of beverage for workers who toiled under the searing heat in Cuba’s sugarcane fields. Two centuries later, it’s still produced in the same old-fashioned way and served with pride.

Throughly convinced that Florida orange juice can wait, Miss Citrus asks me for a good breakfast spot in Little Havana even though her hotel is far from the area. “ I want to be close to Los Pinerenos tomorrow morning so I can indulge in another cup of guarapo juice. But do you think Senora Hernandez will object if I ask for a splash of rum?”

I think my guest fully understands how to have fun in Miami.

By Robyn Webb