Colombians Ask: Who Would Dare Patent Panela?

Only downhill was another trapiche, visible as a thin chimney protruding from the stick. Under his aluminum roof was a scene that Mr. Quintero doesn’t like to see: shirtless men smoke while they work, chickens peck, someone passes out on a pile of sugar cane fibers, wooden pans that can produce splinters. But that was the reality of Panela in much of Colombia, he admitted.

It was eight o’clock in the morning and a panel of an unusual bright golden color was being stirred in pans when a pesador named Jimmy Buitrago showed up late for work. He had been weighing Panela since 5 a.m. in Don Manuel and before in two other cases. He hadn’t slept a full night in three days.

Mr. Buitrago, a wiry 18 year old, seemed no worse as he quickly scooped the warm batter into perfect half-pound patties on a table and then stamped them with the trapiche owner’s initials. He snuck into breakfast bites between fresh pans of hot syrup. He’s been doing this for four years, he said.

Mr. Buitrago was not aware of Mr. González’s efforts or the importance of a patent. Lucero Copete, who wrapped the cooled patties in paper for the market, explained it to him. “He wants exclusivity,” she said. Mr. Buitrago was incredulous: “Where is he?”

This panel tasted different from the kind found in the industrial plants: richer, smoother and sweeter. “Of course!” said Mr. Quintero, pointing to a heap of reddish gold stalks waiting to be pressed. “Look at the quality of the stick.”

Panela is more cumbersome and less predictable than table sugar, Quintero explained, because it contains all of the ingredients in cane juice, not all of which can be adjusted. In small mountain parcels like these, the individual sugar cane is selected according to its ripeness. The only addition is a little vegetable oil to keep the caramel from bubbling over.

The policosanol content of this insanely good panel was undetermined, and the furthest it would ever get was just a few miles down the road.

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